For a studio that has dealt in toys coming to life, monsters in the cupboard and robots in love, it's interesting to see that Pixar Animation Studios have never produced a movie as overtly about magic as Brave. Their 13th feature film is their first fairytale, and also the most reminiscent of classic Disney animation. It also demonstrates that even a Pixar film that admittedly had numerous major upheavals throughout its production can still turn out to be as charming and compelling as their best work.
Hopefully, from that synopsis, you gather that there's more going on in Brave than the trailers might have suggested. However, that's not unusual for Pixar's trailers, and far be it from me to tell you about any of the film's surprises. What I can reveal, is that Brave has an all-pervading sense of magic, mostly due to the affection for Scotland, from everyone involved in the production, which radiates off of the film like a warm, tartan glow.
Directors Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman have made Scotland central to the story, to the point where it really couldn't take place anywhere else. Given how many Disney fairytales take place in unnamed fantastical realms, this film really stands out for its representation of the country's culture and history. It feels more authentic than Ratatouille's window into Paris, for instance, with its gorgeously rendered landscapes and authenticity. It's easily the best-looking film that Pixar has ever made.
As good as this is, it's still only the setting for another terrific story, with far more of the studio's earlier efforts than of the disappointing Cars 2. The studio seems to be at the peak of its powers when telling stories about family, and particularly parenthood. The Incredibles explored that overtly, and the Toy Story films are increasingly based around dealing with a child growing up and leaving behind the things that they used to need.
Brave is essentially about parenthood, but also about how kids react to their parents. In contrast with Merida's incontrollable ginger mane and wild ways, Elinor is the height of composure when we first meet her- she's so powerfully composed that she's in total command of all the rowdy clansmen, whenever they get a bit lairy. And yet, she can't control her tempestuous daughter, nor groom her into a more regal princess. Nevertheless, it's Merida who has more to learn, and the communications breakdown between them is enthralling throughout.
It's best exemplified by an early scene in which each character simultaneously says what they really want to tell one another, outside of each other's earshot. Aside from the strong dynamic in the story, I really enjoyed the superb vocal acting by Kelly Macdonald and Emma Thompson, who pull off the impressive feat of building chemistry together, despite having been kept entirely separate by the technicalities of voice acting- kind of like that one scene in the film, really.
This disparity between mother and daughter is really the main source of conflict in the film. There's no traditional Disney villain, although there is something of an antagonist in the form of Mor'du, a fearsome bear that made off with King Fergus' leg in a scrap that the eccentric king has never stopped talking about. But Mor'du's appearances are sporadic, arising from conflicts in that emotional core, and it really works.
The parent-child relationship isn't represented totally seriously, however. The first sons of each clan, and their dads, bring a lot of humour to a film that captures that rowdy Scottish sense of humour quite brilliantly, especially in McKidd's dual role as the tough Lord MacGuffin, and his incomprehensible son, Young MacGuffin. Likewise, Merida has three younger brothers- Hamish, Hubert and Harris- whose antics serve as a lovely and enjoyable comic sideline for the duration.
If you actively look for Pixar movies to make you cry, I'm not sure you'll find that one tear-jerking scene in Brave, as compared with now infamous scenes in Up and the Toy Story sequels. But hey, it's their job to entertain you, and tears are not the first concern in a film that simultaneously feels traditional, fresh and funny. It's also perfectly prefixed by La Luna, a short film that chimes with the main feature's central theme, of parental expectations, in a way that previous accompanying shorts haven't. The short is very sweet, and the connection is very welcome.
It might not be the best movie that Pixar has ever made, and perhaps it might not even enter your top five favourites, but most importantly, Brave definitely shows that the studio is back on form after Cars 2. I'm sure that none of us were really writing them off after that one letdown, but it's relieving to see that it has the studio doing what they do best- telling a great story about family, made up with great characters, staggeringly sumptuous visuals, and more than enough of that old magic to make it one of the better films of the summer blockbuster season.
If you've seen Brave, why not share your comments below? You can read my interviews with the cast and crew of the film, from the global press junket for the film, by following the links below...
Director Mark Andrews and producer Katherine Sarafian
Art director Tia Kratter
Kelly Macdonald, (Merida) Robbie Coltrane (Lord Dingwall) and Kevin McKidd (Lord MacGuffin/Young MacGuffin)
I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.