Brave is already being referred to as a varied string of Pixar firsts, and depending on who you’re listening to, the list may include first female protagonist, first “serious” animation (i.e. no cute robots bumping into walls, no talking cars, toys, or monsters, etc.), but it seems to me that if it’s anything, it’s Pixar‘s fourth… and it’s second.
It’s the fourth film in which Pixar has made an effort to, for lack of a better turn of phrase, grow up, and deliver not only more complex themes, but richer deliveries of those themes. It’s also the fourth film that has found Pixar trying to relate the idea that maybe grown-ups are pretty cool after all. From Up‘s exploration of a crotchety old man, to Toy Story 3‘s surprisingly-layered emotional walk into adulthood, to Cars 2‘s homage to the quirky adventure of spy-jinx films and a “child-meaningful” detail of the difficulties of accepting those around us.
It’s the second film by way of the curious, and largely nonsensical Pixar backlash.
Brave kicks off with a very young Scottish lass being saved from a bear by her father. It turns out that she’s a Princess, and when we see her next, her father is once again telling the story of that day, and how he lost his leg. It’s a drinking tale, and the boisterous, fun-loving King Fergus (Billy Connolly) enjoys the telling. Unfortunately, our Princess, Merida (Kelly MacDonald), is now at that mid-teen age when Queen’s start really telling Princesses the kind of girls they ought to be.
Merida takes after her father, and is much more at home riding her horse and shooting arrows than standing around in dresses ten sizes too small and embroidering tapestries. Her fiery wild side, made manifest by her unruly hair, is becoming too much for her mother, Elinor (Emma Thompson), and things are about to come to a head, as the Queen has invited the other clans to offer their leaders’ sons up to marry Merida, who wants nothing to do with the curious band of goofs who were somehow sired by Scottish warriors.
Furious with her mother, and driven to a sense of chained hopelessness (as is the teen wont), Merida storms out of the festivities desperate to change her lot in life, when she stumbles onto some Will-o-the-Wisps, who lead her to an elderly witch. Taking this as a sign, Merida is overjoyed at the idea that she could get a spell to change her mother, so that she can thereby change her fate. Of course, things don’t work out quite as planned. Such is the way of wishes and witches, and perhaps, trying to change one’s fate by hook or by crook.
Now Merida is on a clock, trying to return things to normal before the spell becomes permanent, and she has a lot of obstacles keeping her from the task at hand. Not least, the niggling fact that her father is extremely likely to kill her mother… which isn’t something you’d expect to say about a Pixar film.
Though it may not sound it, the film is laced with fun, largely provided by way of Merida’s jolly father, and cantankerous trio of little brothers. The younger crowd will not only love the occasional hi-jinx, but will manage to be pulled into the action to a degree that inspires far more “rooting for” than previous efforts. But ultimately, this is a serious affair, and it is in this seriousness that Pixar shines brightest. What has catapulted Pixar to the highest ranks, beyond simply its storycraft abilities, is that Pixar just gets kids, of any age. Where other studios (even Disney more often than not) pat children on the head and fiddle through their pockets to find something shiny to give them, without bothering really to look away from their marketing reports, Pixar can find nothing more interesting to focus on than the sheer awesomeness of all children.
Brave, whatever else it may be, is a fairy tale that truly honors the tradition, because it provides its lessons with the same touch of experience that comes with a parent reading a bedtime story to their child – and the same couched understanding… and apology. It is the film equivalent of a parent finally making that breakthrough that says, “I know. I really was young once too,” and getting that response that all parents yearn to hear, “Whatever. I guess you’re not that bad.”
Wonderfully, depending on your bent for such things, there is hardly a moment in the film where you might honestly say that Merida is doing anything like being brave. The bravery is all in the metaphor. What Merida manages in the film, which isn’t running away from something, is all easy for her, and she isn’t the least bit scared to do it. Standing up to her mother via her open act of defiance is as nothing to her. It’s the audience that needs to be brave. That fact alone sets Brave apart from not only the lion’s share of animated films, but all films besides. As wonderful and enchanting a character Merida is, the film has little to say about how great she is, but instead looks out and whispers, “I know how great you can be.”