Pixar Animation Studios’ new film Brave is both a grand return to form and an exciting new avenue of storytelling from one of the greatest studios in the history of film-making.
After the commercial success of Cars 2, which I found to be the worst of any of their 12 films (in spite of its zippy storyline and always beautiful visuals), I was hoping for a return to what Pixar does better than anyone else: tell amazingly original stories which are filled with heartfelt emotion, speaking to the deepest part of its audiences.
Brave does not disappoint.
I will be honest–it’s the first Pixar film where I did not anticipate what would happen, even knowing the film’s big twist. Nor did I anticipate the emotional reaction the film’s final arc would spark in me or the loved ones I saw it with last night.
If you’ve seen the trailers, you know what the basic story is: Merida, a Scottish princess with flaming red hair and a way with a bow, doesn’t want to follow her mother’s wishes and marry the available suitors who have arrived at her castle to fight for her hand.
What transpires because of Merida’s headstrong rebellion is brought to life through a beautiful tapestry (literal and figurative) of family emotions and dynamics full of thrilling adventure and lighthearted comedy. Ultimately, the story is about the bond between a mother and her daughter, and the final moments of the film will make any woman remember those moments in the mother-daughter relationship that have slipped into the past.
It’s a sumptuously animated film, like any Pixar creation. Every shot is beautiful, bringing to life the beauty of Scotland like they brought to the world of cars or toys or balloons. From ancient stones to gorgeous sunswept cliffs, castles to witch’s cottages, the film is filled with beautiful visuals that highlight the wonders of the filmmakers’ art. And Merida’s hair in itself (which they spent two years in figuring out how to animate) is a beautiful creation, a testimony to the sheer art of the digital animation.
Voice acted with perfection by Kelly McDonald (Merida), Emma Thompson (Queen Elinor), and Billy Connolly (King Fergus), the three main characters are a reminder of the art of family dynamics Pixar first showcased in The Incredibles. Every person in the family has their own foibles and troubles, but they feel deep affection and love for each other.
They respect each other, even, which is a rare thing to see in film families these days. Even the teenage rebellion which drives the story is not born out of dislike of her parents, but out of the frustration of identity and dynasty that every teen–even those who love their parents–feels. The genuine feelings that the parents feel for their offspring, and each other, is a wonderful thing to see in a contemporary film. It’s quite a refreshing change from family humor that comes from snark and sarcasm.
The design of the film is beautiful, crafted in such a way to highlight some truly innovative character design and color choices throughout are spot on. It’s a genuinely lovely film to look at.
The film’s score, by composer Patrick Doyle, is full of Scottishness, something he understands well, being a Scot himself. Whether it’s in the main theme or the pounding drums of the music highlighting the games, it’s easily one of the composer’s best works. Songs by Julie Fowlis, which speak to the emotions Merida feels as she “let[s] my hair flow in the wind as I ride through the glen firing arrows into the sunset,” and as she deals with the consequences of her desire to change her fate, are pleasantly Celtic in their feeling. The end credits song, “Learn Me Right,” by band Mumford & Sons and performed by Birdy, is a beautiful and moving piece and–like Doyle’s score–should be remembered by the Academy come Oscar time.
Here’s a sample of the theme, a track called “Merida’s Home.”
An exciting change is Pixar’s desire to break out of a contemporary setting in its story. Unlike their last 12 films, Brave doesn’t have a contemporary setting, aiming for a more mystical, old-fashioned story style. There is no reference to the present (although the ubiquitous Pizza Planet truck from the original Toy Story does make its 13th appearance), and the tone of the film is much like Up in that it doesn’t shy away from a more mature feel. Much like Dreamworks’ How to Train Your Dragon and Walt Disney Animation Studios’ Tangled, the film shows that CGI-based animation doesn’t have to have a contemporary setting to be a success.
Ultimately, though, what makes Brave a triumph is the heart of the story. Merida’s relationship with her mother is what the film is all about. There is no prince, no love story, not even an ending where Merida gets to choose which of her suitors she wants. The film is about the bonds of family and the powerful love which transcends tradition and dynasty. When tested, there are no stronger ties. This is something Merida and Elinor both learn, and something the audience reacts strongly to.
The original title of the film was The Bear and the Bow. The significance of both in Merida’s life are played out beautifully in Brave , showing that although the tapestry of our lives may be woven by other hands, it is how we respond to what “fate” throws at us that ultimately determines our destiny.
The final moments of the film are where all the threads of the story, the tapestry that the Pixar artists have carefully woven, come together. This is the “return to form,” where the gift Pixar has always had for telling stories that have heart really shines.
And when Merida throws her arms around Elinor and cries, “I just want my mother back,” every person who has ever fought or argued with their parents will understand. In my own family, where my wife lost her mother less than two years ago, Merida’s cry and longing was especially poignant. Anyone who has lost a parent understands what Merida finally realizes in this moment.
In the end, the battles and disagreements aren’t what matters. It isn’t the traditions or trappings. What matters is the love that weaves our lives into a beautiful tapestry and the bonds that hold us together.