Brave, the long-awaited 13th feature film from Disney/Pixar, centers on the heroic journey of the fiery Merida, a skilled warrior princess living in the Scottish Highlands whose freedom is threatened by an age-old custom. Determined to change her fate by any means necessary, she unwittingly unleashes a curse that will destroy both her kingdom and her family unless she’s strong enough and resourceful enough to undo the damage.
In terms of tone and structure, Brave has more in common with the works of Hayao Miyazaki than that of Pixar’s parent company. Audiences raised on Disney fairy tales will not be expecting the grim (Grimm?) direction the film takes in the second act and may ultimately reject it for deviating from the obligatory romantic comedy formula. There is no charming prince to rescue Merida, but that doesn’t mean Brave isn’t a love story. At its heart, Brave is about the complicated relationship that exists between mothers and daughters, particularly that dark period during adolescence when both parent and child feel they’re living with a creature they no longer recognize.
For all her pluck and spirit, Merida is also selfish, headstrong and unrepentant. Desperate to escape a marriage ordained by longstanding tradition, the young princess commits an act so thoughtless it might be unforgivable if she were voiced by any actress other than Kelly Macdonald (Boardwalk Empire, Trainspotting), whose honest, lyrical interpretation tempers Merida’s tantrums and keeps her engaging and likeable, even when she’s flat-out refusing to accept responsibility for her hasty actions.
Emma Thompson (Sense and Sensibility, Men in Black III) is the picture of refined nobility as Merida’s mother, the elegant Queen Elinor. Torn between her own traditional values and the growing alarm that her daughter is much more a warrior than a dutiful princess, Thompson gives Brave its emotional center. It’s the contentious relationship between Elinor and Merida that sets the plot in motion, and watching these characters fall apart and then find their way back together is every bit as sob-inducing as that memorable opening sequence in Up.
Not to be outdone, Merida’s warrior-king father, voiced by the terrific Billy Connolly (Mrs. Brown), her mischievous triplet brothers, and the warring clan leaders voiced by Craig Ferguson (The Late, Late Show with Craig Ferguson) and Robbie Coltrane (Harry Potter), provide the outlet for Pixar’s signature sense of humor.
The studio’s meticulous devotion to detail is also evident throughout, from Merida’s impossible tumble of tangled red curls to the mysterious will-o’-the wisp spirits to the lush beauty of the Scottish Highlands realized in breathtaking greens and golds. Everything featured onscreen has a purpose and furthers the story. When Merida chances upon the cottage of a witch masquerading as a woodcarver, every creation in the busy workshop looks like it has an intricate backstory and could probably star in the next Toy Story film.
The score, composed by Patrick Doyle (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire), celebrates the film’s location with the use of traditional Celtic instruments and two beautiful original songs performed by Gaelic singer Julie Fowlis. British musician Birdy lends her voice to the rousing “Learn Me Right” with the help of folk rock band Mumford & Sons.
With its 13th theatrical release, Pixar has created a story that will challenge audiences to accept and eventually love an endearingly flawed Disney Princess. Brave isn’t the film most will be expecting, but kudos to Pixar for being courageous enough to trust that its audience will embrace a grown-up tale about growing up.
Brave opens Friday nationwide.