Like all Pixar movies, this one is prefaced with a short film directed by one of the studio's up-and-comers. This time, it's Enrico Casarosa (who climbed his way up through the ranks as a storyboard artist for Up, Ratatouille, and Cars) presenting Pixar's longest short film to date, La Luna . This particular short film is gorgeous in its design and animation, though Michael Giacchino's sublime score and the clever presentation sans dialogue certainly don't hurt. The story concerns a young boy who goes on a trip with an older man (presumably the boy's father) and a much older man (presumably the boy's grandfather). The latter two are working partners -- I'm loathe to say exactly what it is they do -- who bring the boy along to teach him the tricks of the trade. Their methods are quite different, however, and they are prone to bickering at great length on the subject. Ultimately, the boy invents his own way of going about things, in such a way that everyone learns from each other. The boy really comes into his own, setting himself apart from and equal to his elders.
Even to someone who's never seen the feature presentation, it should be obvious why Pixar chose to pair this short film with Brave.
The story is set once upon a time in medieval Scotland. The main character is Merida (voiced superbly by Kelly MacDonald), the fiery princess of the great clan DunBroch. She's a young woman ahead of her time, far stronger, smarter, and more independent than might be expected of a princess back in the day. As the trailers have already made clear, this is where the standard parental conflict comes in.
Merida's parents are unique in that somehow, both of them managed to survive past the opening credits in a Disney animated film. Hell, the film opens with an action sequence that could easily have killed off Lord Fergus (Billy Connolly, having a blast), but he's still alive -- albeit missing a leg -- after the cut. Color me shocked.
Anyway, the family dynamic goes something like this: The Queen Elinor (a great if underutilized Emma Thompson) is determined to raise Merida as a proper lady, despite Merida's vocal and constant resistance. Basically, Elinor is so focused on the elegant, poised, perfect little daughter she wants that she doesn't appreciate the intimidating, intelligent, beautiful daughter she got. As for Merida, she fails to appreciate that being a princess comes with the expectation to be a leader and a role model. The carefree life she has now won't last forever, and she can't lead a whole kingdom by herself.
The mother and daughter obviously love each other, but they're both so stubborn and set in their ways that they're naturally going to hurt each other as the conflict continues. They're both so blinded by self-righteous rage that of course they don't see eye to eye. Insults are thrown, tears are shed, and both of them lash out in ways that they regret immediately.
As for Fergus, he clearly supports Merida's wild streak. He argues that knowing how to fight is important, princess or not, and there's a great deal of pride in his eyes when he looks at Merida (I'll be heaping more praise on the visuals later). Fergus loves his wife and daughter so dearly that I kept expecting him to play a go-between. He's uniquely and perfectly situated to talk with the both of them, praise them both honestly, and call them out on their respective types of bullshit.
In fairness to Fergus, he does attempt that in one scene. However, despite all of Fergus' strength and affection for the women in his life, he's not nearly smart or articulate enough to be of any help for Elinor, much less Merida. Moreover, it would take a hurricane to get a word in edgewise when Merida and Elinor are squabbling, so of course Fergus doesn't stand a chance. I should also add that Fergus has to host the three great clans of Lord Macintosh (Craig Ferguson), Lord MacGuffin (Kevin McKidd), and Lord Dingwall (Robbie Coltrane) as they present suitors to compete for Merida's hand. With all of that testosterone in one room, Fergus has enough trouble trying to keep order.
At this point, I should probably address how men are portrayed in this film. Specifically, they are portrayed as men. Not as gentlemen, but as men. Disgusting, egocentric, and primeval. Obsessed with size and strength. Eager to start a fight with any provocation. These are basically the rudest, loudest, and crassest alpha males who could possibly be shown within the confines of a Disney film. Suffice to say that there is not a single Prince Charming in the bunch.
It's tempting to find this portrayal offensive, but it really isn't. Partly, this is because the excess of testosterone is played for laughs, which makes all the men look even more oafish. Secondly, it's repeatedly shown that they can still be cowed by a strong and beautiful woman, in such a way that there's still at least some trace of civility there. Mostly, however, it's because this portrayal is absolutely true. Deep down in every man (though sometimes not very far down at all), there is a drunken and self-centered neanderthal who will overcompensate for the size of his phallus by any means within his limited imagination, regardless of his own safety or common sense. Seeing a film embrace that and then play it for laughs -- even within PG standards -- was a strangely cathartic experience.
As for the clans themselves, I could just as easily have seen a movie about them. Watching the three clans bicker as they compete for bragging rights and a princess might have made for a hilarious narrative in any other movie, but it only takes up the first act of this one. Alternatively, we hear a bit about how the four lords saved each other in battle, and I wish I could actually see that unfold. Watching these armies of idiots try to band together in spite of their petty dick-measuring contests could potentially have made for some great comedy against an epic backdrop, possibly with a subtle hint of political satire thrown in. As it is, the three pairings of the lords and their sons are basically interchangeable, and none of them individually have any effect on the plot. Even as comedy relief, these characters are under-utilized.
Then we have the Harris, Hubert, and Hamish (all mute), Merida's identical trio of pint-sized brothers. I loved these guys. They are all such clever, destructive, bastardly jokers that even the Weasley twins would take notes watching them. I got so much enjoyment out of watching the triplets cause mayhem that I found myself hoping that they could be the focus of another movie -- or even one of Pixar's beloved short films -- in the style of Tom & Jerry or the Looney Tunes. Instead, they only have a few scenes of protracted mayhem, with little effect on the plot beyond that of a diversion. They are very effective comic relief, but that doesn't do much good in a film that's already overflowing with comic relief characters.
I should also mention the legend about the four ancient clans who founded Scotland, one of whom broke away and led the country into chaos. The movie shows a flashback of this, just enough to get me really interested in seeing this dark, epic, action-packed story. But in the end, it has essentially no bearing on the plot. This particular storyline could have been removed entirely and precious little would have ultimately been lost.
That storyline is connected to Mor'du, a monstrous bear who serves as our antagonist. As a character in himself, he's more than scary enough and he's got a potentially great backstory. As a villain, he's thoroughly useless. The movie already had enough of a conflict and a crisis to overcome without him.
Finally, there's the Witch (voiced by Julie Walters). This character is funny, neurotic, and quirky, with a potentially huge collection of information, items, and spells that she could use to affect the plot in any number of ways. Unfortunately, the character gets one scene and a few parting words of wisdom before leaving the film for good. She stays just long enough to kick-start the second act, but that's it.
Hopefully, a pattern should be obvious by now. This film is loaded to the brim with great ideas, each of which could easily sustain a movie by itself. Unfortunately, since they're all crammed into the same movie, we're left with only half-baked glimpses of what might have been. That's not to say the movie is unfocused, however.
At all times, the focus of this movie is kept squarely on the relationship between Merida and Elinor. Everything that these characters do and everything that they learn stems directly from the mother/daughter interplay. In point of fact, the movie's main adventure happens precisely because Elinor went too far and Merida was too rash in striking back.
I'd rather not say exactly how the adventure in this film gets started, but I will say this: Merida and Elinor are stuck together through the whole thing. They are partners in this predicament, forced to travel together and work together. I realize that this is hardly a new thing in cinema, but it's quite a novel turn for an entry in the Disney Princess roster. The subgenre may be full of heroines dealing with parental problems, but I fail to recall a single one up until now who worked with her parents to such a huge degree.
In this context, making the mother such a prominent character was a bold move. It might potentially have cut into the star's screen time, distracting from her development, influence on the plot, and (it must be said) merchandise sales. Yet Pixar does a magnificent job of making the approach work. For one thing, the two of them help each other grow, which gets each of them to their respective endpoints much faster and in a way that feels more natural. Additionally, during those scenes that are absolutely pivotal to the plot, it's Merida who's always front and center. Elinor is still within arm's reach, but she's definitely more of a supporting character where it matters. And that's as it should be. After all, learning how to take a step back and let Merida act for herself is one of Elinor's most important lessons. That and Merida is kinda the main character.
If the mother/daughter interplay of the movie has any failing, it's that the relationship has to share screen time with all of the various great ideas mentioned earlier. In point of fact, the Merida/Elinor storyline is yet another one that could have sustained two hours all by itself. Seriously, this is a movie that needed to be another half-hour longer, especially since the film is only 93 minutes long as it is. Hell, the film has such a breakneck pace that it felt only an hour long anyway.
Now, for some miscellaneous story nitpicks. At the beginning and end of the film, Merida has some voice-overs that contribute absolutely nothing except for rushed exposition and thematic preaching. Even worse, the film takes something like five minutes at the start to show us a montage of Merida's family and the initial Merida/Elinor conflict. It's a textbook violation of "show, don't tell."
Even worse, we have the wisps. Every so often, the film will provide a trail of wisps for our characters to follow, and the trail will lead them exactly to where they need to be. There's no explanation given for what these wisps are, how they work, or why they're leading our characters to their destinations. There doesn't seem to be any logic for where and when they show up, just that they're what the characters happen to need at that particular point in time. In other words, they're an all-purpose "get out of a painted corner free" card that the filmmakers could use anytime they had to get the plot moving. I didn't think I'd ever accuse Pixar of lazy storytelling, but here we are.
Ah, but I haven't even gotten to the visuals yet. Put simply, the movie is absolutely beautiful. The character designs are all wonderful, the animation kicks ass, and the scenery is gorgeous throughout. With the possible exception of Up , I don't think there's been a Pixar film that ever looked better. And that's saying a lot. Props are also due to Patrick Doyle and his phenomenal score. The film even throws in some very effectively-used original songs that I look forward to hearing at next year's Oscar ceremony.
Brave is a movie with far too many good ideas for its limited running time, but that's not a bad problem for a movie to have. Furthermore, the film has a strong mother/daughter relationship at its core, which keeps the film from getting unfocused. The movie also boasts a great voice cast, wonderful music, superlative animation, and luscious visuals that make great use of its Scottish setting. The humor is quite entertaining in places as well.
It's not a perfect movie, but the movie's strengths definitely outweigh its storytelling flaws. I can gladly recommend the film, with or without 3D. After all, even when Pixar is at its worst, that's still better than most studios at their best. And this is not Pixar at its worst. Not by a long shot.