Review: Pixar's 'Brave' takes big, bold risks

By David Dizon,

Posted at Aug 01 2012 11:45 AM | Updated as of Aug 02 2012 06:39 PM

Merida (Kelly McDonald is as unruly as her hair. Photo: Handout

MANILA, Philippines – Mix equal parts “Freaky Friday,” Disney’s princess formula and Pixar Animation’s mind-blowing visuals and you’ve got “Brave.”

As a feminist tract, “Brave” is less “Rapunzel” and more “Mulan,” but without the love interest. It’s also a movie with mommy issues, one that could test the patience of any parent who watches it until its wholly predictable end.

More importantly, it’s a movie about forgiveness and how mutual respect and understanding can cover a multitude of hurt.

“Brave” is set in 10th-century Scotland. Merida (Kelly McDonald) is chafing under the tutelage of her strict mum, Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson). Elinor wants Merida to act like a proper princess and marry a suitor in order to keep the peace with allied clans.

Merida, however, is as unruly as her hair and wants none of it. She’d rather climb mountains, shoot arrows or ride on horseback through the forest rather than do millinery like the queen.

A fight between the two precipitates a mid-act twist that could throw the entire kingdom into chaos. Merida must now use all her courage to correct her mistake and finally decide her fate.

Lush setting

As a visual treat, “Brave” smashes the competition with animation so lush it will kick you in the eyeballs. I usually take notes while watching a movie so I could review them later but for “Brave,” I simply had to put my pen down and just enjoy it.

Pixar has always given us fantastic vistas of the imagination – from the desolate future earth of “Wall-E” to the insane mind trip of the revolving closet doors in “Monsters, Inc.” This movie joins that pantheon of visual marvels by giving depth to every landscape and detail to every strand on Merida’s red shock of hair.

“Brave” sets the rules in the early part of the movie. Merida is headstrong, Queen Elinor prim and proper, King Fergus strong but with a soft touch, and Merida’s three brothers Harris, Hubert and Hamish provide comic relief. When Fergus fights off a bear in the first part of the movie, you know the scene is going to be important later on.

“Brave” gleefully revels in Scottish clichés during the courting scene – it’s “Braveheart” without the bloodshed and made funnier. There’s also a very practical use of Scottish kilts in one scene.

Magic gets a sort of comeuppance in this movie, with a woodcarving witch that comes off as a little cutesy and creepy. There’s always a witch in fairy tales, from “Snow White” to “Sleeping Beauty,” and even the “Narnia” books. “Brave” reestablishes the rules that magic is never to be trifled with, that what you want is not what you’ll get when dealing with these forces. The movie’s unnamed witch doesn’t do poisoned apples, but she does specialize in levitation, call center potions, and animal transformations.

The princess mold

Story-wise, “Brave” takes a page from the aforementioned family comedy “Freaky Friday” but with only one character swapping bodies. There’s also something refreshing about a female cartoon character that does not exist merely to fall in love. There is a scene in the movie where Merida rips her too-tight dress and shows off her archery skills that feels like Pixar breaking free from the Disney princess mold. However, her act of rebellion also starts off the second act twist that becomes exceedingly dangerous in the thrilling third act.

Pixar's first princess has no prince to save her. Photo: Handout

Merida and Elinor clearly have been quarreling for a long time before Merida makes that fateful decision that gets her mother in trouble. The plot twist feels like something out of left field – you know it will bring mother and daughter together, but the parent in me can’t help but feel a little frustrated with Merida for making such a foolish decision. This gets even worse in the third act, when the danger to both Elinor and the kingdom escalates.

While Disney’s princesses had trouble coming to them to block Prince Charming’s path, Pixar’s first princess actually creates trouble for herself and has no prince to save her.

As a mother-daughter movie, “Brave” takes some risks by not carving out the same path as Marlin and Nemo in “Finding Nemo.” Elinor loves her daughter but she does not swim the oceans to save her; it is Merida who must save her mom from a fate worse than death.

To mend their bond, Elinor must learn to listen to Merida’s needs and accept that her fate is different, while Merida must learn to accept her role as princess without necessarily sacrificing her character. Merida must also come to a realization that mistakes have consequences but in this regard, the movie cheats just like every other fairy tale with a deus ex machina that makes everything right as rain.

“Brave” makes big, bold moves when it comes to female characters while sticking to what makes mother-daughter relationships work.

Will we see a sequel in the offing? Only fate and the box office will tell.