*This review is largely spoiler free, but read cautiously if you haven’t seen the film yet*
Brave is the thirteenth feature film from Pixar Animation Studios, the studio most notable for having produced critical and commercial hits such as Toy Story, Up and Monsters, Inc. The common denominator between these films (aside from their obvious brilliance) is that none of them have a female main character. Brave is therefore notable for being the first Pixar feature to have a female as its lead, and also for being Pixar’s first fairytale. Hearing those two statements however might give you entirely the wrong impression about Brave; it is neither a feministic rant nor a traditional, princess-prince-stepmother-villain type fairytale. The common denominator with Brave and previous Pixar films, is that it’s brilliant.
Brave has received decent reviews, but, at 76% on Rotten Tomatoes, nothing near what we’re used to from the studio. It seems Cars 2 acted to, unjustly in my opinion, make people doubt Pixar, the studio they once revered above all else, and look for flaws. Well, they must be looking pretty damn hard to find things to gripe about here, as Brave was phenomenal. Touching, powerful, immersive, funny and gorgeous – all in equal measure – Brave is yet another winner from Pixar, and has the feel of a grand epic, and an instant classic.
Brave opens on a wide shot of lush, green Scotland, a shot that immediately instils a sense of awe and immersion in you – the quality of Pixar’s animation is truly astounding compared to even a year ago. We focus in on a young Merida, as a child, learning to shoot her bow and arrow, before the demon bear Mor’du rears his ugly head and we arrive at the fateful event where King Fergus (Billy Connolly), Merida’s father, loses his leg to the bear. Forward to the time in which the film is set and we see a teenage Merida (Kelly Macdonald), struggling against her mother’s wishes to marry her to one of three suitors from the neighbouring clans. Here arises the major conflict of the film; in the same way that Finding Nemo was a father-son story, Brave is a mother-daughter one. Facing losing her freedom and seemingly unable to communicate effectively with her mum - Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson) - Merida rides off into the forest, where the wisps lead her to a witch’s hut. Here, she bargains for a spell that will change her mum, and change her fate. This wish is taken a little too literally and soon Merida, the Queen and the Kingdom of DunBroch are all in grave danger.
Coming from a story from original director, Brenda Chapman, based on her own relationship with her daughter, Brave is a very relatable and touching film at its core. Of course, juxtaposed against this every-day, real-world relationship is the epic scale of the film, set in 10th century Scotland. The second Pixar film, after WALL-E, to not be set in present day, Brave is also as much about the land in which it’s set and the ferocities and legends of that as it’s about the relationships between the characters. The weather swirls and changes in the huge mountains and stormy locations, symbolic of the fluctuating tensions of the family and the mother-daughter dynamic at the centre of Brave. And that relationship is certainly a fantastic one. Brave was clearly a labour of love for Brenda Chapman, and its subsequent director, Mark Andrews, has also clearly done his best to not tamper with that; trying to shape the scope and the overall story arc of the film (a particular forte of Andrews, who previously worked on The Incredibles) and be diligent to keep everything clear and ensure it retains its heart. I think this is less of a case of the film being a mess and needing a new director to salvage it, as allegedly was the case with Ash Brannon on Toy Story 2 and Jan Pinkava on Ratatouille, than a case of, after Brenda had worked on the film for so long, a fresh pair of eyes, in Mark, were needed to add the finishing touches and guide it to where it had the potential to be. Personally I noticed no rift in the film due to the change in directors; in fact it flowed particularly smoothly.
The script, penned by directors Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman, co-director Steve Purcell and Lion King co-scribe Irene Mecchi, is largely very sharp. The jokes are, more often than not, visual, but there were some fun lines from the characters. Some of the dialogue was at times a little stiff, but it would have grated if the 10th century characters had been speaking in slang or with a more modern spin. The back-and-forths between Merida and Elinor were very frantic, believable and contributed fantastically to the relatable family of the film – much like The Incredibles. I also found few flaws with the second and third acts of the film; I thought the plot-twists were genius!
The characters that populate the film are just as good as you’ve come to expect from the studio as well. Merida, Pixar’s first female protagonist, is truly one of their best characters yet. Stubborn and head-strong with youth, but never arrogant or unlikable; she just wants to choose her own fate. Another pothole that Pixar thankfully avoid is that they don’t make Merida a tomboy. An easy route to follow would’ve been ‘Merida doesn’t act like a traditional princess, so let’s make her act like a guy’; Merida is much more delightfully complex than that. She's every bit the female character Pixar’s detractors have been clamouring for, but she’s not a particular testament to good female characters or feminism, she’s a testament to great characters in general. Pixar have never focused on making a character based on a certain social group, race or, instead opting to make them fully realised, likable people. Merida isn’t a blatant attempt to please feminists; she is an attempt by Pixar to once again create a wonderful character; and a successful attempt. Edna, Dory and Ellie were all similarly great characters, but, for her prominence in and importance to the film, Merida may be Pixar’s strongest characters yet - female or otherwise.
Elinor is as important to the story as Merida herself, and therefore is similarly well rounded and realised. She's overbearing and a little stuffy, but it’s evident that this comes from a place of love. She’s not a wicked step-mother, she loves and cares for her daughter and only has her best interests – or what she sees as her best interests – at heart. The witch, also, who provides Merida the spell to change her fate, is a wonderful character. She was in the film for a much shorter time and more of a comic character, but was brilliant to watch. King Fergus is large and oafish, providing a bumbling comic relief to the film. Yet, when Mor’du threatens his family, he becomes ferocious; likewise showing a realistic family and his love and care are abundant. The most comedy however comes from Merida’s young and mainly silent triplet brothers: Harris, Hubert and Hamish. The trio were hilarious; almost pantomime in their execution, in many the same ways as Pascal and Maximus in Disney’s Tangled, and drew huge laughs from the audience with almost everything they did.
In fact, I was surprised at how funny Brave was. It looked, going in, to be a much darker and more intense film than the previous Pixar features, and indeed it was, but also blended deftly with that was a very natural sense of humour. Andrews and Chapman were very clever in balancing the very real, oft-seriously emotional pairing of Merida and Elinor with much broader, more comical characters like Fergus and the triplets. Other great sources of comedy throughout the film were the lords, Macintosh, MacGuffin and Dingwall, the leaders of the neighbouring clans and allies of the Fergus led DunBroch. Again very oafish and daft (as well as particularly Scottish, namely young MacGuffin) the constant competition and fighting for Merida’s hand provided some great moments and big laughs. It is a valid point that the male characters are a little less refined than the females, or indeed than others in Brave. But this works well to show a sense of chaos in the male led world of the times that never seems insulting; given how clued in the triplets are, it could also show how adults are far less sensible than they like to think – adding a certain childlike magic to the film.
Also, Mor'du, who is technically the villain of the film (although not in a typical fairytale sense) is absolutely terrifying. Brave wasn't rated PG for nothing, he has a huge intensity to him and the almost photo-realistic rendering meant even I was scared; some of the younger kids sounded terrified. He's called the demon bear for a reason and is one of Pixar's most primal and intimidating villains. Providing fear and huge set pieces, he's just another fantastic element to a fantastic film!
Talking about the animation, Brave is the first film to be created using Pixar's new animation software, and it shows. The very first shot of Brave literally made me mouth "wow", the detail and realism set against the more cartoonish characters was absolutely sublime. Brave is the most beautiful Pixar film to date, and possibly one of the best ever, narrowly trailing Rango. It's hard to describe how wonderful it was - it needs to be seen to be believed.
The music, also, was fantastic. The score, by Patrick Doyle (Thor, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire) is intense and immersive. It may be slightly less hummable than some previous Pixar scores, but I don't think it was intended to be, in much the same way as Hans Zimmer's Batman and Inception scores, it's powerful and brings you 110% into the film. The original songs in the film, though, I have to give special mention to, Julie Fowlis and Pixarian Alex Mandel's "Touch the Sky" and "Into the Open Air" are brilliant, same with Birdy and Mumford & Sons' "Learn Me Right". They, perhaps in contrast to the score, definitely were hummable. And singable. Incredibly catchy and moving, as well as being used to perfection in their respective scenes to enhance the story on screen, they contributed, along with Doyle's scores to one of Pixar's best and most immersive soundtracks yet!
I saw the film in 3D, and whilst the 3D was good, it wasn't great. Pixar and Disney 3D films are some of the only 3D films that don't annoy me, but they are often too subtle to make it worth paying extra for. The 3D in Brave was quite immersive, but, again, rather subtle. It certainly didn't spoil the film for me though - not even close. Normally I wouldn’t have bothered watching it in 3D, but I was fortunate and lucky enough to be invited to an early Disney press screening of the film at the EMPIRE Cinema in London, and this showing was presented in 3D. The massive cinema was also equipped with surround sound – I was slightly disappointed that it didn’t have Dolby Atmos installed, especially since EMPIRE is the only cinema in the UK that has it, but I can hardly complain. I’d also like to thank Disney’s Grace Yee for the tickets to the film and Chris Wiggum and the Pixar publicity team for passing my details on to her.
I have very few gripes with the film to be honest, another reason I don't understand a large proportion of Brave reviews. Some of the humour was a little crude maybe, perhaps a little Disney-ish for Pixar, it felt a little bit too short but, who cares? It was fantastic! But in terms of the reviews that have said it's too Disney like, and unoriginal, I fervently disagree. I'd say, in fact, that it's a quintessentially Pixar-esque story, and the magic and fairytale elements are a million miles from anything the studio have done before, so in being maybe more traditional in its choice of film, Pixar have again been supremely original. The lack of fairytale conventions, also, means it's not really a fairytale at all, it's just another Pixar classic. Don't compare; enjoy.
Brave is released here in the UK on 13th August in some cinemas, and 17th August in all (or all that will show it). Outside of the UK and seen it already? Let us know your thoughts here or on Twitter (@A113Animation).
Also, some brief (as I'm aware this review's getting quite lengthy) thoughts on the other aspects of the showing:
Almost equal to the viewing pleasure of seeing a new Pixar film now, is searching for the Easter Eggs and references. I noticed John Ratzenberger, Pixar's lucky charm, as a Scottish guard announcing the arrival of the lords and their sons. I also noticed the Pizza Planet Truck - I won't say where in case you want to find it yourself, but click here if you want to see it - and the newt reference. I missed the Sully from Monsters University's cameo (here), and I haven't the foggiest where A113 was hidden. I also found the post-credits dedication to Steve Jobs very touching and moving - I was a little teary eyed - RIP Steve, you're still missed.
As it was an official Disney screening, we only got trailers for Disney released movies: the latest trailer for Tim Burton's Frankenweenie and the fantastic Wreck-It Ralph trailer - which drew big laughs from the teenage and adult members of the audience. Alas, and surprisingly, the Monsters University trailer(s) didn't show. It's a shame, as the audience would've lapped it up!
And finally, La Luna. The short film that we've heard so much about, Oscar nominated and packing significant hype, the Enrico Casarosa directed La Luna is every bit as wonderful as it's been claimed to be. The "different feel" and painterly watercolour look Enrico told us about in our interview a while back are there in abundance. Beautiful, touching and certainly one (if not the very best) of Pixar's short films, La Luna is wonderfully calm and serene, and so, so touching. Great job, Enrico and co.!