Pixar (2012) 93 min. PG

Director: Mark Andrews & Brenda Chapman

Screenplay: Mark Andrews, Brenda Chapman, Irene Mecchi & Steve Purcell; Story: Brenda Chapman

Editing: Nicholas C. Smith Score: Patrick Doyle

Stars: Kelly Macdonald (Princess Merida), Emma Thompson (Queen Elinor), Billy Connolly (King Fergus), Julie Walters (The Witch), Kevin McKidd (Lord MacGuffin & Young MacGuffin), Craig Ferguson (Lord Macintosh), Robbie Coltrane (Lord Dingwall), Steven Cree (Young Macintosh), Callum O’Neill (Wee Dingwall); non-speaking characters include Mor’du (the bear), Angus (Merida’s horse), Harris, Hubert & Hamish (Merida’s triplet brothers)

Animation is among the most visually exhilarating of movie forms because it’s the only sort of cinema, apart from silents, that is conceived primarily from a visual standpoint. The dizzying optic dynamism never lets up for a minute, so cartoons can easily start to seem overbearingly energetic. They have to in order to sustain the interest of kids’ increasingly shorter attention spans, now preconditioned to this kind of constant stimulation.

For adults on the other hand, being relentlessly pelted by such a barrage of visuals is like a seizure inducing assault on the senses, overwhelming, frenetic and tiring, akin to watching a palette of bright primary paints melt into one another at supersonic speed. When handled well though, dialed down to a doable level, animated movies can make for a fizzy, pop colored treat, an instantaneous pick-me-up, the likes of which you won’t derive from any other genre. The musical may come closest to triggering a similar sense of emotional euphoria, but while Brave does contain some drinking songs, it’s missing those splashy, show stopping, Broadway style numbers we associate with such Disneyesque diversions to put over the big moments with panache.

With its treasure trove of imaginative elements and rich, Old World ambiance however, Brave is like a plush down comforter you just want to sink into. It’s a genuinely gorgeous movie to look at, with its cascading, rainbow colored waterfalls, mist shrouded crags and deep forest greens augmented by streaks of scarlet red as Merida, the clan princess who attempts to thwart her mother’s plan to force her into a marriage of state, rides her heavily built Clydesdale Angus through the dark woods of the Scottish wilds. When she stumbles into that mystical circle of ancient menhirs set in formation, she even appears to have wondered upon another Stonehenge. The geologic geometry serves as an attractively ethereal stage for the ending, the stone circles become a proscenium arch to frame the action like antique theater in the park.

Those luminescent will-o‘-the-wisps that guide Merida to her fate recall the floating daffodils of Avatar, as well as the illuminated Chinese lanterns of Tangled, which leads one to believe that this effect is used so often because such pleasing imagery pops off the screen that much more graphically in 3D, making us want to reach out and touch it. These will-‘o-the-wisps are like pulsating, airborne jellyfish floating with deceptive aimlessness on the currents of the wind, whispering the secrets of the ages to lost wayfarers along the way. In 3D, Brave looks indistinguishable from those stereoscopic View-Masters where you advance the slideshow disk one frame at a time and the visual association seems apt. Evoking memories of toys adults may have played with as kids themselves helps the cartoon return accompanying parents to their own childhood, putting them in a suitable frame of mind for this animated adventure.

Brave is packed with far more visual wit than your average live action comedy and the bright, peppy gags are tossed out so slapdash, some of the funniest bits to be had are treated as throwaways. The movie can afford to be this indulgent because the generous helpings of humor mean that even when one joke falls flat, the next is sure to hit its mark. Brave also shares the same self-effacing, post-modern awareness and sense of humor that has become mandatory for animated movies in this day and age, aimed at a hipper young audience more precocious and pop culturally aware courtesy of the Cartoon Network and internet gaming. In order to make the ancient setting more accessible, tongue in cheek anachronisms abound, beginning with a feisty heroine whose brand of teenage rebelliousness seems a few thousand years too soon, and continues apace with such characters as Julie Walters’ witch who barters her discounted woodcuts at blowout retail prices and when she’s out of the office , sets up an amorphous approximation of voicemail that’s as infuriating as any automated telephone response system ever dealt with. The movie’s so visually enchanting, we’re willing to overlook the inanity of certain plot points (such as when Merida fails to fess up to her father before he finds out that his wife’s a beast, his locking Merida in the tower, etc.). But this attempt to commercialize Brave in the standard issue manner goes far toward marring its more enchanting, otherworldly elements.

Oddly enough, the movie’s something of a variation on Moby Dick with Merida’s father King Fergus having lost his leg to the demoniac black bear Mor’du, whose hide is riddled with the broken shafts of spears same as the great white whale was lanced fore and aft by harpoons that had likewise failed to bring it to bay. Clomping about on his wooden leg, the king is meant to be obsessed with the idea of vengeance on the bear who made a meal of him, though the jolly, father Christmas like Fergus (as characterized by Billy Connolly, who voices the part), hardly seems the brooding, Ahab-like sort. A big bear of a man himself, he appears so shaggy and shambling, it would be a simple matter to mistake him for his own quarry, much as he’ll later mistake his wife. Still, we’re set up to believe that Merida will prove herself worthy of the title designation by fulfilling the mission he sets out for her, tracking down the bear and slaying it, which she sort of does, though not at all in a way that logically ties back to any of these themes the movie early establishes.

Instead Brave becomes a pseudo-reworking of Disney’s Freaky Friday, right down to the parallel editing as mother and daughter wish to swap places with one another, their inter-generational conflict resolved by body transmutation that allows each to walk in the other’s shoes. The mother’s startling metamorphosis, feeling the call of the wild for the first time, is contrasted with the less readily apparent change that comes over her ‘wild’ child Merida, as she simultaneously learns to become less feral and more civilized. Being turned into a bear is meant to put Merida’s fussy, hard to please mother Queen Elinor back in touch with the wild side she suppresses. Living a more earthy existence forces her to come to terms with the fact that everything can’t always be perfect or orderly, that life is messy. Becoming an animal actually allows her to fully embrace her humanity for the first time, imperfections and all. In bear form she also represents what Merida herself might become if she doesn’t tame her own wild ways, like that equally feral kid in Where the Wild Things Are a few years back. With her henpecking mother removed from the equation, Merida must now grow up, become more responsible and look after not only herself, but the now helpless queen, in effect taking on the mothering role in their relationship. With newborn bear Elinor a babe in the woods, the hunting and survival skills Merida has picked up, all her wild ways, suddenly find their natural outlet, coming in handy as she teaches her mother how to behave like an animal, even hand fishing for trout in the stream, just as Elinor once tried to teach Merida how to act like a lady. Once each allows their own stubborn, inflexible natures to give way a little, they begin enjoying each other’s company for the first time, mending the rift between them.

Merida is the only daughter among the four ruling clans, and far superior in bravery to any of the Scottish lairds trotted out for show and heralded for their exploits in battle (her father notes that “Only the ancient kings were brave enough to drink from the firefalls,” as she does), but being a princess deprives her of the opportunity to prove it publicly. Even her bratty little brothers, identical triplets who serve the same function here usually reserved for the heroine’s trusty animal sidekick,  are allowed to get away with murder under the pretext that boys will be boys, while she’s expected to behave with the reserve, dignity and poise befitting a lady of her station.

Brave is the first Pixar movie to feature a female protagonist so it’s odd that these strong feminist themes would become so entangled in the subtextual undergrowth and soon forgotten in the course of the swift flowing action. The movie becomes more a homily on the inhumanity of arranged marriages (as the unexpectedly eloquent Wee Dingwall eventually reveals, the princes don’t wish to be forced to wed any more than Merida does) and this is doubly regrettable, because by proving herself as brave and capable as the sons of the clans, Merida should also be demonstrating that she’s something more than a bartering piece to be auctioned off to keep the peace, a trophy wife to be won.

Just like the prince who broke the pact with his kingdom’s co-rulers by trying to seize the throne for himself and was cursed to live out his years as a bear, Merida’s ‘selfishness’ in not wanting to be wed threatens to breach the uneasy peace between the four allied Scottish clans, creating a rift as wide as the one she tears in her mother’s tapestry.  The movie depicts Merida’s desire for freedom as a form of wildness itself that seems to be taking her over as her tangled growth of hair envelopes her body, something she must grow out of by learning the value of putting the needs of others before her own. The moral of this fairytale is meant to show “How one selfish act can change the fate of a kingdom,” when the ‘selfish’ act the movie is condemning is the selfsame one it also endorses- Merida’s steadfast refusal to be betrothed. Brave tries to force an uneasy truce of its own between these duel themes that doesn’t feel entirely satisfactory.

Composer Patrick Doyle scores Brave to the same Celtic strains that characterized Braveheart (which the movie pays additional homage to by borrowing its title), The Lord of the Rings (the flashback to the falling out between the four founding Scottish clans also appears closely modeled after the prologue to the first Peter Jackson movie), and even Titanic, which really popularized Celtic music onscreen (and whose equally feisty, red haired heroine Brave’s may be intended to recall). In voicing Merida, Scottish actress Kelly Macdonald’s lilting burr also evokes Holly Hunter’s fiercely independent Ada from The Piano, whose narration opened and closed that film. When she enters the archery contest to compete for her own hand, Merida’s onanistic exercise is similar to that of Cate Blanchette’s Elizabeth, another of moviedom’s fiery haired heroines, who defiantly chose to marry herself to the state for the good of her kingdom, instead of a man.

First, traditional hand drawn animation was replaced with computer generated graphics that many purists decried for being less warm and more impersonal and now computer animation seems to be giving way to something else, and even more soulless, entirely. This new style of animation used for movies like Brave and Tangled (where I first noticed it), vaguely recalls the plasticine claymation popular with children’s programming during the baby boomer years, yet it gives a strangely waxen, lacquered look to the characters. Their imitation skin appears synthetic and imparts the impression that they’ll melt clean away if they get too close to an open fire (no wonder the witch plops on a welder’s helmet when bubbling and brewing over her black cauldron.) These animated character’s eyes are as glassy and reflective as round marbles, so when the queen is taken over by her bear form and the loss of her humanity is signaled by her eyes glazing over to black, as if her pupils had been fully dilated, the effect actually makes her seem more human, if only because she looks less like a mannequin. Despite her rebellious, nonconformist spirit, Merida, with her strangely artificial skin tones, more closely resembles a plastic Barbie doll manufactured on an assembly line than any other animated heroine in recent memory. She could pass for her own tie-in Mattel toy.

It’s left to her hair to do the most expressive acting for her. Merida’s head of pre-Raphaelite curls has the burnt orange hues of Renaissance reds and the coiled scarlet tendrils of frizz she sports seem imbued with a life of their own. They’re as dynamic as Rapunzel’s flowing flaxen locks in Tangled, if to less practical purpose. Merida’s wild hair is the physical expression of her own untamed nature, a tangle of tresses as unruly as their mistress. Even when securely restrained under a headpiece, one unmanageable strand still snakes out defiantly. When this girl who wants to run free is pressed, pulled and strapped into her tight, constricting maiden form corsets to be paraded before the eligible sons of the other Scottish clans, it seems symptomatic of her fear of losing her freedom, of being tied down. Though she left the project in 2010 over creative differences, Brave was co-helmed by Brenda Chambers (with Mark Andrews). Pixar’s first female director, Chambers, who also authored the story, has likened her tale to the dark works of Hans Christian Anderson and the Brothers Grimm (dark enough to have warranted a PG rating), which is placing herself in some mighty fine company. The movie’s mantra, repeated more than once for accentuation is that “Legends are lessons. They ring with truth.” Unlike so many other cartoons inspired by old legends and fable though, Brave is a pre-fabricated fairytale, a bedtime storybook created from scratch. But because it possesses such a heartfelt feel for folklore, whether this story is based on actual Scottish legend or not seems beside the point.

Brave easily convinces us that it must have been based on preexisting sources by incorporating many elements from fairy tales we already know so that the newly minted story will seem vaguely familiar, such as “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” (as Merida’s brothers morph into cubs), “Hansel and Gretel” (with that discovery of the witch in the woods), King Arthur (Merida’s quest for bravery seems very much in the tradition of the valorous Knights of the Round Table), Robin Hood (especially when Merida enters the archery tournament disguised in a dark hooded cape). Most directly, the movie seems a variation on Beauty and the Beast in which the vainglorious queen (she suffers from excessive pride) is transformed into a beast in order to be taught humility. There’s the suggestion of superstitious werewolf lore in her shape-shifting into this were-bear variation and, as in most werewolf movies in which an innocent, soft spoken human being is transformed into a snarling beast, Brave lightly dabbles in exploring the thin line between the savage and civilized.

As computer animation becomes increasingly advanced, cartoons are beginning to look more and more like live action features, which kind of defeats the purpose. It seems a waste to use the art form to try and duplicate reality when we have movies specifically for that purpose (they’re called documentaries). The aim of animation should be to show us the world in a way only a toon would see it. By its very nature, it animates, imbuing inanimate objects with a semblance of anthropomorphic life, something only this singular art can do adequately. Brave follows suit, turning bloodthirsty bears into cuddly teddies, imposing qualities upon them that make them seem far more human than beast. With the exception of Winnie the Pooh, no animated bear since Baloo in The Jungle Book has seemed more endearing than Emma Thompson (who voices Elinor) and I doubt I’m the only one who prefers the queen in funny bear form to the tiresomely stuffy and fastidious alternative. As a bear Elinor at least appears a better match for her husband, his physical equal, as she demonstrates by going all mama bear to protect her cub from Mor’du at the end, proving her bravery as surely as her husband had at the beginning, when it was he who fought off the bear, leaving her to flee with their child. 

A fair amount of the humor is derived from watching the refined Elinor attempt to hold on to the delicacies and formalities of court life while in the form of a lumbering beast. The amusement of seeing her navigate the now tiny castle corridors, insisting on walking on two legs rather than dropping down on all fours, and squeeze her swinging haunches through the archways undercuts the horror we feel at the havoc Merida’s spell has so foolishly wrought and our irritation that she tries to shirk responsibility for her actions (“Mom’s been turned into a bear but it’s not my fault.”). The suspense, on the other hand, revolves around her trying to shield her mother from her bear baiting father, but the movie’s implied conservationist sentiments, that Fergus shouldn’t demonize and try to exterminate all bears simply because of his bad experience with one, never comes off. Nevertheless, turning Elinor into a bear, along with those three cute cubs, is certainly intended to put a human face on the species and give King Fergus pause the next time he’s inclined to kill one on sight, considering how alarmingly close he came to turning his wife into his latest stuffed hunting trophy.

This concept is similar to How to Train Your Dragon in which all those hulking Vikings sought to exterminate the fire-breathing beasts rather than living in harmony with them. Giving bears a human face unwittingly creates a dramatic void at movie’s center however. Since Mor’du doesn’t have a more prominent place in proceedings, Brave seems to be missing the requisite, grandstanding cartoon villain to create chaos. It’s difficult to despise a poor dumb beast who’s motivated by animal instinct rather than out and out maliciousness. Moreover, by crafting a backstory in which the wicked bear turns out to be a transformed human being, the movie deprives him of his primal terror, the inhumane animal instinct we associate with such alpha predators, the selfsame instincts that spark the horror we feel, along with Merida, watching the queen slowly succumbing to her beastly nature.

Set in the 10th century, the Scottish Highlands serve as a novel backdrop for this animated feature. I can’t recall any previous one taking place in a similar setting. However, one tends to associate the notion of great ‘god’ bears more with Russian traditions than with Scottish, so the cultural displacement feels a wee bit disorienting at first. But Brave has the sumptuous enchantment of an Old World fairytale that’s never before been told and no animated film of recent vintage has evoked this atmosphere with such redolence. Just placing a bear, which are extinct in Scotland today, in such a setting imparts a mystical, otherworldly air to proceedings that instantly calls to mind that earlier, indistinct era out of storybooks, complete with archery tournaments, the Scottish equivalent of jousting.

Archery has enjoyed a very big year. Everybody seemed to be doing it, with the Epirus Bow in Immortals, Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye in The Avengers, Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games, Crystal Reed on MTV’s Teen Wolf and the demented lead in We Need to Talk about Kevin all having preceded Brave. Only dwarves have had more playtime, with Peter Jackson’s upcoming Lord of the Rings prequel The Hobbit set to hit theaters over the Christmas season, and not one but two versions of Snow White having passed through multiplexes already. Brave‘s archery tournaments allow Merida’s humorously individualized suitors in their plaid kilts and bright blue war paint, to compete for their lady fair. I kept expecting these three prince charmings to have more to add to the proceedings than they do. Instead they just sort of evaporate from the movie same way that amusingly anachronistic witch does (she seems to exist in a timeless void). If Merida had wanted to set a real challenge for them to prove worthy of winning her hand, she would’ve decreed they demonstrate their bravery by racing her to slay Mor’du.

These Scottish clans seem so preoccupied with tracking down cave bears it’s surprising they have any time for courtship at all. Humorously, when more than two of them gather in the same room it invariably ends in a raucous barroom brawl that suggests all the ‘Scotch’ stereotypes you’ve ever heard. Watching the king and his guests run round and round the castle turret on their drunken bear hunt, when there’s no likelihood of genuine danger makes it clear that these manly warriors are all pretending to be far braver than they actually are. It’s all a pretense and a sham same as the one their sons affected upon introduction earlier. Brave represents another dubious first for Pixar, being the first of their films to feature nudity of any sort. The story goes out of its way to make these drunken Scots look even more foolish when they’re stranded on the roof and must use their kilts to form a rope-tie to lower themselves to the ground.

Brave may have been produced by Pixar but it’s distributed by Disney and has obviously been molded in the successful Disney tradition which can be traced all the way back to Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. We can likely thank Chapman for Brave’s female-centric focus on the mother-daughter relationship rather than a search for Prince Charming, and for featuring Pixar’s first female protagonist, but after seventy some years of Disney clichés and story conventions, in which free spirited fairytale women struggle against oppression and tradition toward some form of personal liberation, the movie seems unduly familiar, for all the other ground breaking firsts it may represent for its studio. It may be unfair to pick on this particular picture for the long standing trend, but despite its visual richness, Brave too, from a creative standpoint at least, has been cast in the same mold. On the surface of things it seems indistinguishable from The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Mulan, Tangled, etc. Their dependance on tie-ins and the tender age of their target demographic lock mainstream animated movies into these pre-established forms, big screen equivalents of lulling bedtime stories. The result is that they’re starting to seem wane and highly standardized, fairly crying out for some new avenues of thought and interpretation.  

This may explain why  less traditional animation like the movies of Hayao Miyazaki and other manga artists, along with Jean-Loup Felicioli and Alain Gagnol’s A Cat in Paris and more adult oriented fare such as Richard Linklater’s rotoscoped Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly or Fernando Trueba and Javier Mariscal’s Chico and Rita, while less technically advanced and in some cases even throwbacks to earlier artistic styles, seem so fresh and innovative when they happen along. It’s hypocritical of Brave to advance a storyline all about having the courage to break free from tradition and change your fate, when its own makers have packaged it in such a prefabricated, pop-up picture book form. For all its finer qualities and the sort of feisty, non-traditional heroine that’s now become an animated institution, Brave turns out to be a demure movie that wants to play it very safe. Merida may break free of her bonds and choose her own path, but the movie remains corseted. It all feels as predestined as paint by numbers.

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