Film Review: "BRAVE"
Published: Thursday, June 21, 2012
Updated: Saturday, June 30, 2012 09:06
When the words Pixar and fairytale are next to each other, you’re likely to get two responses: the first is disbelief that they could ever take the Disney route, and it’s usually found in the cesspool known as YouTube comments. The second response is generally unadulterated excitement that such a film could exist. Now that “BRAVE” has finally opened, there won’t be many in that former group.
The secret to “BRAVE’s” success isn’t its unique plot or eye watering animation, although they do help. The reason this film enchants is also found in Pixar’s other twelve features. It’s the characters. Character relationships and dynamics are so authentic they leap from the screen. (And this is without 3D.)
Our feisty ginger heroine Merida (Kelly MacDonald), is simultaneously familiar and surprising. She’s a skilled archer (leave those Katniss Everdeen comparisons at the door), and she’s also handy with a sword. Not once does she fall into the trap of the “Strong, Independent, Female Protagonist”. What I mean is that she isn’t strong for the sake of it, a quality that must always apply to fictional women, or else they aren’t good enough. Merida is rebellious and headstrong, but for good reason. She is adamant that she doesn’t want to be a carbon copy of her mother, Queen Elinor.
Elinor (Emma Thompson), is elegant and reserved, embodying a more traditional femininity that Merida does not fit into at all. And not once during the film is this brand of femininity looked down upon, nor is Elinor for embracing this role. It’s quite refreshing in the “Strong, Independent, Female Protagonist” world where women have to be stripped of their femininity. In fact, the contrast between the queen and princess serves as the basis for their turbulent relationship, but neither is painted as a villain for disagreeing with the other.
This turbulent mother/daughter relationship is the core of “BRAVE”. The time has come for Merida to marry, which her mother has been preparing her for all her life. Elinor wants Merida to marry in order to preserve tradition, but Merida at sixteen does not think she’s ready and refuses to go along with it. While the trope is nothing new, Pixar seemingly recreates it. It’s very hard to choose between rooting for Merida or Elinor, and we’re not supposed to; we want them both to win. We want the two of them to understand where the other is coming from, because they do love each other a great deal and each has got valuable reasons. More importantly, we want them both to win because they’re such incredible women who deserve a healthy, loving friendship.
While many prematurely applauded the film because of Merida’s lack of romantic interest and refusal to marry, they do her and the story a great disservice by focusing so heavily on these aspects. It’s absolutely wonderful that Merida doesn’t want to marry, but defining her by that is just as bad as those who only define the Disney princesses for their prince filled happy endings. This film isn’t at all about how “strong” women are when romance is missing from their lives. It’s a mother/daughter tale which poses the question: are we bound to our fates, or can we change them?
Merida believes she can mold her own fate, or get a better one from the will o’ the wisps, blue spirit lights that bear a passing resemblance to the kodama spirits in Hayao Miyazaki’s “PRINCESS MONONOKE”. These wisps lead Merida to a tiny cottage inhabited by a witch (Julie Walters) who claims she is merely a wood carver. She has an affinity for bear carvings, which fill her entire cottage. This one sequence in the film provides much of the humor, especially since her identity as a witch is obvious to both Merida and the audience. It is here that Merida requests a spell that changes her fate.
And as is the case with magic, the spell backfires and Merida must fix it herself. What’s so endearing and frustrating about Merida is that she won’t take responsibility for what she’s done, so the remainder of the film also passes with her coming to terms with the curse she has unleashed which will have dire repercussions on the kingdom of Dunbroch.
Dunbroch is ruled by both of Merida’s parents. While Queen Elinor is the calm leader, skilled at public speaking, her husband King Fergus (Billy Connelly) is the exact opposite. He and Merida share a special bond, as he’s the one who teaches her archery and they’re quite close. Fergus is boisterous and vibrant, sure to top the list of favorite Pixar dads. He’s obsessed with killing Mor’du, the demon bear who took his leg, a tale he’s fond of regaling Merida and her three brothers with. Those three, described by their sister as wee devils, are Hamish, Hubert, and Harris, a trio of sweets loving rascals who spend their time pulling pranks and tormenting their nursemaid, Maudie. The triplets don’t speak, but it works entirely in the film’s favor.
They’re not the only colorful trio of the film however. Lords MacGuffin, Macintosh, and Dingwall (voiced by Kevin McKidd, Craig Ferguson, and Robbie Coltrane, respectively) arrive at DunBroch so each of their first born sons can compete for Merida’s hand in marriage. Each lord and each son even has a distinct personality, but Merida doesn’t want any of them and they can’t have her either. They fail to hit the target in the archery games which she selected, except for Wee Dingwall. In one of the film’s most famous scenes, Merida gets her bow and arrow and fiercely declares to everyone assembled: “I am Merida, first born of DunBroch, and I’ll be shooting for my own hand!” It doesn’t get more feminist than that.