Pixar's BRAVE is unconventional in more ways than one might expect. Not only does it feature a female protagonist for the first time in a Pixar movie, but I also found that it hearkened back to the days when animation didn't need a million set pieces to feel substantive. BRAVE tells a simple story that is filled with complex internal conflicts. What results is a movie that I found refreshing, vibrant, and inspiring.
Princess Merida (Kelly MacDonald) has grown up the eldest daughter of the king and queen of a Scottish kingdom. Her parents have survived Fatal Disney Parent Syndrome, which usually kills mother or father (usually mother) before (or when) the movie begins. Merida is more focused on her freedom and diversions than the expectations of a princess who has to marry a prince to maintain the peace. Her mother Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson), on the other hand, is more focused on adherence to tradition and teaching her daughter that things must be as they have always been for the sake of the greater good. It worked out fine for mother, so the same should be true for daughter...right?
Based on that setup, think of this not as a "Pixar" movie, drawn from their magical well of instant genius, but rather, Pixar's take on a "classic Disney" movie, just as THE INCREDIBLES was their take on superheroes and WALL-E was their take on existential sci-fi.
Princess Merida's father (Billy Connolly) is important to her and to the plot, but it's Merida's relationship with her mother that is the core of what BRAVE is trying to do. The progression of that bond between parent and child is the essence of the movie. They know each other better than they think, to the point of not realizing that it is both of them who need to grow as people, not just the "other".
The economy of the dialogue, flashbacks, and narrative threads are just enough material to give us a fully-formed portrayal of a nuanced (though still archetypal) relationship between the two. Thankfully, it is not heaped on such that we are beaten over the head with excessive compulsory detail and exposition. The presence of magic and other traditional elements of fairytales and "Disney Princess" stories do not belie the fact that the script breaks from many deeply held patterns of the form.
The most prominent break from the norm for most viwers is that Prince Charming never shows up, and saying that spoils absolutely nothing.
Unlike the princess stories that we are used to seeing on the screen, there is no dashing, idealized, unrealistic male surrogate for boys to pretend that they are and for girls to (possibly) hopelessly search for in vain from their adolescence on through their adult lives. The male characters of BRAVE are, unlike their brethren in other feudal stories, "hack and slash first, ask questions later", rather than anachronized wise warriors who are moral paragons. In this story, cunning intelligence is a stronger force than brute strength.
If you ask me, the climactic triumph of the story does not involve weapons or high action, but rather, a crucial scene of spoken and unspoken communication between mother and daughter. That's like making a diplomatic meeting at the Potsdam Conference the climax of a World War II movie. It seems nuts relative to conventional wisdom, but it's an interesting solution because no one does that. That's a great hook, but it still has to work. For me it did, because BRAVE doesn't simply ride on that novelty, but charges forward from it as a starting point, and tethered to it as a throughline. As a result, the beats of the story do not match what we've been conditioned to expect from an action-adventure movie, which is what BRAVE generally looks like from a distance. Its dark secret that is ok to talk about is that the movie is much more intimate and efficient than that.
What many consider the Disney template for this sort of story (more often than not including an absent mother and a doting father) is discarded in favor of a different formula. That may not sit well with those who've become fully adapted to strictly digesting variations on that aforementioned recipe. I fully expect many to react to this like an unexpected, substantive dose of fiber. To that I say: it's about time.
As much as I love Disney animated features from the golden era(s) for their artistry and craft, there are plenty of details that make me cringe in retrospect. Remember Princess Aurora meeting a stranger in the forest, singing a duet with him, and then just walking off with the random fella?
For the most part, the only alternative to this kind of story has been the symbolic pseudo-empowerment of heroines, done as recently as SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN and 2010's ALICE IN WONDERLAND (among others). It's the "let's give her sword" version of empowerment. Just add sword, and we're good. Misogynist, patriarchal social construct defeated.
I'm convinced that untold amounts of damage has been done to young girls' confidence and sense of identity for years due to a scarcity of compelling mainstream stories about breaking with traditional gender roles. Frankly, I would say the same for boys, but more on that in a bit. This is all thanks to what I call Princess Movie Syndrome: the inculcation of the notion that "someday your prince will come", so you should just wait for happiness to find you rather than go find it yourself. Finding things yourself can be scary (see also: dangerous!).
BRAVE is about a young woman standing up and taking the reins of destiny herself, and learning that though the path is not easy, at the end of that journey can lie the greatest reward. In advance of seeing BRAVE, I had read and overheard people speculating that guys won't be able to relate to the mother-daughter relationship. Not only is that terribly reductive, but it couldn't be more wrong. This is a picture that is generally about a gender agnostic parent-child relationship, and is specifically about you becoming whom or what you want to be, regardless of who or what you are. The script is based in simple "to be" verbs wrapped in uncomplicated action verbs. That lack of clutter is a blessing in a genre replete with needless windowdressing more often than not, but it may be misunderstood for a lack of sophistication.
Once again breaking with expectations, Pixar has told a story that is more profound and advanced than its basic components might indicate when unassembled. That the design of the film, from the visuals to story to message, is so precise and intentional without a bend toward expectation, it makes the dedication to Steve Jobs in the credits all the more apt. BRAVE may not be made the way you would have made it, or feature everything you thought it would or think that it should based on your uninformed speculation, but all of that misses the point. If calling something Jobsian is a thing, then this is most certainly a Jobsian finished product. The movie is fundamentally about being brave, specifically like one of The Crazy Ones.
The voice performances of all involved are wonderful (as has always been the Pixar trademark), especially MacDonald and Thompson. Connolly proves that, had they not cast him, Pixar would've needed their brain trust checked, and the trio of local lords played by Kevin McKidd, Robbie Coletrane, and Craig Ferguson inhabit their archetypes just to the edge of being too familiar.
BRAVE is not just something that girls need to see, nor is it a story that only children should take to heart. BRAVE is a worthy standardbearer for the Pixar tradition, and a sterling return for them to original features. I want to see it again, and would go tomorrow if I could. I teared up more than once, and those tears were earned.
One last note...
I'd like to caution all readers to beware possible spoilers in the Talkbacks, and ask that all of you who have already seen the movie please refrain from spoiling the shift that occurs in the second act. It's something you should NOT have revealed in advance of seeing this movie, regardless of what other writers and tweeters online may decide is ok to ruin for you. The couple sitting next to me mentioned to each other how glad they were the ads didn't give away anything after the first act.
I agree that these are all things that are integral to your first experience with the movie. You never know when one person will go rogue in there, so again, I'd recommend extreme caution with the Talkbacks until you've seen BRAVE yourself. I have the Delete Hammer warm and ready right next to the Ban Hammer.
UPDATE: bunion boy and hewliganshaircut did good by everyone mentioning in the TBs that the toys and other tie-in merchandise, like the Art Of book, spoil what should be unspoilt. Be advised.
BRAVE arrives in US cinemas on the 22nd of June.