Mother, daughter bond in fresh, funny, feminist 'Brave'
There are so many fairy tales that feature a wicked stepmother, or absent or negligent parents, it's refreshing to see one devoted to the loving, if sometimes fraught, relationship between a mother and daughter.
That would be Brave, the latest animated collaboration between the Disney and Pixar studios, an entertaining story of a girl, her bow and arrow, and her destiny. But underlying the elements of magic and adventure is a quiet family tale in which a girl's best friend proves to be her mother—and vice-versa.
Like its feisty, appealing young heroine, a medieval Scottish princess called Merida, Brave dances to its own drummer in many ways. It's the first Pixar film to feature a female protagonist, whose job it is to carry the story. It's one of the few Disney cartoons in recent memory spun from a completely original story (by Brenda Chapman, who also receives co-director and co-writing credits), and not based on a classic fairy tale, historical vignette, or previous film. And it's the first "Disney Princess" movie (yes, Merida dolls are on the way) that doesn't feature a romantic interest. This girl isn't waiting for her prince to come; she's too busy finding herself. Merida (voice of Kelly Macdonald) grows up in a craggy hillside castle with sweeping ocean views on one side and a deep, dense forest on the other. Her father, King Fergus (Billy Connolly) is a big, blusterous, fun-loving force of nature who gives his firstborn daughter her first bow and arrow as a wee lass. Her mother, Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson) is an elegant, refined lady who despairs of ever teaching her teenage daughter proper princess decorum.
Merida doesn't care about cooking, fashion, and weaving tapestries; she'd rather be out in the woods, racketing around on her charger, shooting targets in the trees, and climbing crags.
When her mother deems the time has come to gather the lairds of the outlying clans to come present their sons as potential suitors, Merida has a fit. Nevertheless, the clansmen arrive (a lot of comic mileage is gotten out of the irascible lairds and their highly unsuitable goofball sons). Custom demands a competition for the princess' hand in marriage, but when archery is chosen as the contest, Merida scandalizes her mum by entering the lists and "shooting for ma own hand."
Of course, she out-shoots all the men, and after she and her mother quarrel, Merida flees into the refuge of the forest. There, she begs a witch (Julie Walters) for a spell to "change her destiny" by changing her mother. But, as so often happens, the spell doesn't go exactly as planned; the change in Elinor is so drastic, Merida must take her back to the forest for her own protection, where they try to sort things out before a) the menfolk find them, and b) the change becomes permanent.
Chapman and her team (writing partner Irene Mecchi and co-writer/directors Mark Andrews and Steve Purcell) trade in classical fairy tale situations—the old witch in the wood, a magical spell to be broken, animal transformation. But the feminine/feminist viewpoint gives the story a cheeky, modern YA vibe, and the character comedy is good-hearted, sophisticated and funny. (Whenever the women are away from the castle—which looks appropriately vast, drafty, and rough-hewn—the king and the clansmen quickly descend into brawling chaos without their civilizing presence.)
And while Merida does ultimately ride to the rescue, she's not obliged to don armor and become a warrior to save the day (the fatal flaw of the recent Snow White and the Huntsman movie). She can be "brave" without turning into a killer, while her mother demonstrates her mettle (and her love) in no uncertain terms as well.
Meanwhile, the film is full of gorgeously rendered visuals, from breathtaking seascapes and shimmering woodlands to Celtic-inspired details on fabrics, weapons and clothing. Medieval tapestries and stone carvings are beautifully done, and in one fine interlude, ancient chess pieces come to life to illustrate a folkloric tale.
Still, it's kind of a shame that this is the first Disney Princess not to have a prince; one wonders what kind of a match a smart writercould dream up for her. That's one sequel I'd look forward to.
★★★ 1/2 (out of four)
With the voices of Kelly Macdonald, Emma Thompson, and Billy Connolly. Written by Brenda Chapman & Irene Mecchi and Mark Andrews & Steve Purcell. Directed by Mark Andrews, Brenda Chapman, and Steve Purcell. A Walt Disney release. Rated PG. 93 minutes.
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