Although Mickey Mouse remains the company's figurehead, Walt Disney is, in many ways, the studio that fairy tales built. From 1937's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to 2010's Tangled, Disney's legacy has largely been defined by its adaptations of these classic folk tales, which for generations of kids, have become the definitive versions of the exploits of Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and the Little Mermaid. The studio's in-house animation company Pixar, on the other hand, has largely prided itself on creating original stories usually in contemporary settings; look through their feature filmography and you won't find a single adaptation in the bunch. So the company's latest offering Brave is an interesting hybrid of Pixar and Disney's respective specialties. The makers behind this film are attempting nothing less than inventing an entirely new fairy tale, one that employs some of the genre's familiar tropes and characters in service of a wholly original narrative. They don't completely succeed, but it's exciting to watch them try.
In addition to being Pixar's first fairy tale, Brave is also the company's first female-led feature (something that seems long overdue) and, for their central heroine, they've seized upon an iconic type in folklore: the princess. This particular princess is Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald) whose spirit is as fiery as her flaming red hair. She's the eldest child and only daughter of King Fergus (Billy Connolly) and Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson), the rulers of a mythical medieval kingdom located in a remote, but picturesque spot of the Scottish Highlands. Despite her mother's attempts to transform her daughter into the model of royal feminine perfection, Merida prefers such rough and tumble activities as scaling towering cliffs and hitting targets with her trusty bow and arrow. Her rebellious ways have serious ramifications when she hijacks a tournament during which suitors from other noble families compete for her hand and ends up defeating all comers. The noblemen are understandably shocked, but their fury pales in comparison to Elinor, who gives Merida a talking-to that ends with the girl fleeing the castle into the woods, where she has a magical encounter that radically transforms her relationship with her mother.
Brave's trailers have deliberately been coy about revealing what this bit of magic entails and I won't give the surprise away here. Suffice to say, it hearkens back to one of the most potent and primal themes in fairy tales: that a child's parents -- the people who are meant to love and protect them -- instead reveal a capacity to do them great harm. (The plot twist certainly impacted my five-year-old son; he was entirely unnerved by what happens to Merida and Elinor and spent much of the middle section of the movie looking anywhere but the screen. Demonstrating his own bravery, though, he didn't want to leave the theater, staying in his seat all the way until the end. So fair warning to parents of younger children: you may have to do some literal hand-holding during several sequences.) The movie's title ultimately refers less to Merida's courage in the face of physical danger than in the way she challenges herself to put aside her own desires to confront her responsibilities. Meanwhile, Elinor demonstrates her valor by trusting her daughter to be herself and do what's right. By the end of Brave, the ultimate test of bravery becomes the ability tell someone you love them and mean it with every fiber of your being.
From a purely technical standpoint, Brave is another impressive production from the current masters of mainstream computer animation in America. The characters and backgrounds are rendered in beautiful detail and the animators have done a nice job building a world that feels both realistic and magical. (Avoid the 3D version at all costs, though; while past Pixar efforts have played just fine in 3D, this one is often too dark and murky, particularly in the forest sequences. This could have been due to a projection issue at the screening I attended, but don't take the risk.) The script -- which is credited to four writers including the film's original director Brenda Chapman -- is also a model of efficient storytelling from a studio that deservedly prides itself at its innate understanding of narrative structure. Movies like Brave indicate precisely why Pixar is a giant in its industry, beyond its business partnership with Disney.
And yet, when judged against Pixar's absurdly high standards, Brave doesn't fully measure up to the studio's best work. The movie has been carefully constructed to a fault; what's missing amidst the lovely animation and classical storytelling are strong, memorable personalities, not to mention a sense of spontaneity. When you think of movies like Finding Nemo, Wall-E, Up and, of course, the Toy Story series, what springs to mind first are the characters and the way their particular temperaments clash, thus spinning the movie off in fun and often surprising directions. Despite the twist at its center, the characters in Brave are mostly playing out a familiar drama in familiar ways. And while it's refreshing that Pixar avoids following the current fairy tale playbook of spinning a self-aware yarn that openly comments on the genre (a la movies like Shrek or a show like Grimm), the film cries out for an added dimension that would make it something truly unique instead of a pretty good variation on stories that have endured for centuries. Brave has plenty of brio -- what it lacks is the daring to fully venture into unexplored territory.
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