In some ways, Brave is a disappointingly conventional addition to Pixar Animation’s acclaimed oeuvre. The protagonist is a princess, the story follows a traditional fairy tale path, and the humor indulges in some uninspired stereotyping and a few dumb, shoehorned pop culture gags that I consider beneath the beloved studio.
At the same time, the voice acting is delightful, the animation is breathtakingly lovely, and the two central characters, a girl and her mother, are drawn with heartfelt nuance. Princess or not, a female protagonist struggling with a nonromantic relationship is unusual in American cinema, and Brave movingly handles its strained mother-daughter bond. Perhaps only the astronomically high expectations that Pixar’s name engenders make Brave disappointing. I still laughed, I still gasped, and even minor Pixar makes me cry.
Pixar’s princess is Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald), the eldest child of a Scottish warlord, Fergus (Bill Connolly), and his elegant, politically savvy wife, Elinor (Emma Thompson). Elinor has spent years trying to mold Merida to follow in her footsteps as a refined, thoughtful ruler, but Merida is far more interested in riding around the countryside and perfecting her archery skills. Their disagreement comes to a head when Elinor organizes a competition among the sons of Fergus’s vassal lords for Merida’s hand in marriage. Merida rebels and runs away, and when she encounters a witch (Julie Walters) who reluctantly agrees to fix the girl’s problem, she happily returns home with a potion to slip to her mother, having made the classic fairy tale mistake of neglecting to get any fine print on what exactly that potion will do. This goes just about as well as it always does, which is to say not well at all, and mother and daughter must work together to undo the spell.
Let me first get the stuff I didn’t much like out of the way. The portrayal of feudal Scotland is insanely, distractingly broad, with all the men breaking into violent brawls at the slightest provocation and yet another tired iteration of the naked-under-the-kilt gag. The witch’s scenes—with the clichéd wisecracking crow and a few left-field contemporary references—seems to have been dropped in from another, lesser movie (though I did appreciate one particularly fine joke that only works in retrospect but is hilarious once it dawns). Minor characters in general are flat and one-note, not providing texture so much as flashes of frequently garish color, and the plotting is uneven, with a few jarring tonal shifts and dramatic crosscuts that don’t quite cohere. None of it is bad—and much of it is quite cute—but it doesn’t feel inspired and fresh in that way I’ve come to expect from Pixar.
But these are relatively insignificant blemishes compared to the movie’s virtues, from little details to broader themes. The voice cast is dominated by Scottish actors (Macdonald and Connolly, plus Robbie Coltrane, Kevin McKidd, and Craig Ferguson in supporting roles) whose lilting brogues give the dialogue an almost musical quality. And the gorgeous animation creates charmingly distinctive people for those voices to bring to life.
As impressive as Merida’s tangled curls are, however, even more impressive are the depictions of the natural world. Animals play a large role as the story unspins, and the animation slides in and out of anthropomorphizing them in accordance to the story’s needs, making thoughtful distinctions, subtle but immediately apparent nonetheless. The landscapes fairly teem with life, ranging from delicate to sublime. Indeed, the wild world of Brave feels magical in a mystical, secretive way. That’s why the witch never seems to fit. She’s too much of our world, and at its best, Brave has an alluring long-ago-and-far-away sort of quality, exemplified by the eerie glow of the will-o’-the-wisps that the movie wisely leaves unexplained.
The heart of Brave, though, is Merida and Elinor and the relationship between the two. As shallow as the peripheral characters are, the mother and daughter at the center are rendered with depth and sensitivity. Maternal fairy tale figures are usually out-and-out villains, so it’s refreshing how balanced and ultimately loving the relationship is here. Elinor isn’t a bad mother—to the contrary, she’s affectionate and patient and has nothing but her daughter’s best interests at heart—but the communication between the two has broken down utterly, because Elinor is too quick to dismiss her daughter’s wishes and Merida is too unwilling to shoulder responsibility.
Despite its not inconsiderable shortcomings, Brave is a triumph because of how well that central relationship works, from the painfully recognizable rift to the poignant reconciliation. Merida and Elinor’s journey—rediscovering each other’s strengths and dreams, values and courage—is as powerful as any hero’s quest. And while this princess’s tale may not be a romantic story, it is a love story, and a truly beautiful one at that.