After taking a slight misstep last summer with the amusing but superficial Cars 2, the creative teams at Disney/Pixar have thoroughly redeemed themselves. Brave is an absolute joy – a seamless blend of spectacular animation, intelligent writing, and tremendous heart and imagination. Although its status as a 3D computer animated film modernizes it from a technical standpoint, its values are firmly rooted in the glory days of traditional cel animation, in which it was believed that adults and children should experience it together. Here is a story that doesn’t mindlessly pander to younger audiences; it bothers to tell a story and develop the characters in such a way that parents will also feel engaged. It’s funny without being condescending, frightening without being nightmarish, and touching without being sappy. It’s a perfect emotional balancing act. It’s also terrific entertainment.
Taking place in Ancient Scotland and drawing from a deep well of Scottish folklore, the film tells the story of a teenage girl named Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald), a skilled archer and sword fighter distinguished by a full head of unkempt curly red hair. She’s adventurous, athletic, and fiercely independent, qualities that go against the duties and expectations mandated by her royal upbringing. Her mother, the elegant Queen Elinor (voiced by Emma Thompson), has the best of intentions when it comes to her family and her kingdom, and she acts as a levelheaded counterpoint to her dedicated yet impulsive husband, King Fergus (voiced by Billy Connolly), a vast Highland warrior who will gladly regale anyone with the tale of how he lost his leg to the demon bear Mor’du. But Elinor can also be an unendurable nag, especially when it comes to her daughter and her unladylike demeanor.
The lords of the neighboring three clans, who have each formed a shaky truce with King Fergus, convene at a medieval fair, where the eldest sons will compete in an archery contest for Merida’s hand in marriage. This is in perfect accordance with age-old customs, but Merida, determined to be in control of her own fate, finds a loophole and uses it to rebel. In more ways than one, this creates a rift between mother and daughter, both of whom are too stubborn to see things from the other’s point of view. Merida runs off into the forest and, after entering a gigantic circle of monolithic stones, follows a magic trail of will o’ the wisps to the cottage of a witch (voiced by Juile Walters), an eccentric old crone who makes a living whittling out wooden trinkets. After initially denying her true self, she begrudgingly fashions for Merida a spell that will, as Merida requested, change her mother.
This eventually leads to a turn of events that has mercifully not been given away in the ads. So as preserve the surprise, I will play along and not spoil it for you. What I will say is that Merida and Elinor are each a half of the film’s emotional core; at its most fundamental level, it’s about a mother and daughter learning to communicate and to appreciate each other for who they are instead of for who they want the other to be. This process of discovery is depicted with tremendous care, believably running the emotional gamut from pleasant to stormy. I suspect many adult audiences will be able to relate to this, especially if they now have teenage children of their own. Just as a child typically fails to understand the actions of a well-meaning parent, so too do parents often forget how fresh and uncomplicated the world seems to a child.
All the Disney/Pixar films are exercises in creating worlds that completely immerse audiences. WALL-E transported us into outer space. Finding Nemo took us on an undersea expedition. Up had us soaring through the clouds. The Toy Story trilogy made the real world seem extra large. True to form, Brave follows in this tradition. The film is a visual triumph, evoking the natural beauty of the Scottish Highlands with painstaking detail. The water really seems to glisten. The leaves and grasses really look as if they sway in the breeze. At the same time, little touches of magic like the will o’ the wisps give it the feel of an illustration in a beloved storybook. That none of this is diminished by the 3D process is nothing short of miraculous. If it looks this good with a slightly dimmed picture, imagine how good it will look in a noticeably brighter 2D projection.
Most animated films are known for their colorful side characters, and this one is no exception. Apart from the witch, a refreshing retrofit of a conventional evil cackling hag, we have Merida’s identical triplet brothers, a trio of mischievous and surprisingly resourceful dessert snatchers. We also have the three cantankerous clan lords (voiced by Kevin McKidd, Robbie Coltrane, and Craig Ferguson), whose comic relief status is matched only by their dimwitted sons (voiced by McKidd, Callum O’Neill, and Steven Cree). All six, along with King Fergus and a roomful of guests, take part in two sequences, both of which exemplify how it usually takes a woman to get things under control. The first is a hilarious brawl. The second is a near declaration of war. Brave is a not only another terrific Disney/Pixar offering, it’s also a masterful animated film in and of itself.