For the bulk of their movies, Pixar has relied on the idea of shared cultural experiences to base their movies on. We all know the heartbreak of losing a favorite toy (all three Toy Story films) or the desire for that one great adventure (Up) or have curiosity about the monsters we all know are lurking in the closets (Monsters Inc.). In fact, it was a departure from that approach to storytelling that seriously harmed Pixar’s track record with Cars 2. Their rebound from that dud also departs from their successful formula, but replaces it with an even more proven formula – one adopted from their parent company. In fact, many people seeing Brave might feel compelled to state that someone got some Disney in their Pixar product.
Following in the Disney footsteps of Ariel (The Little Mermaid), Rapunzel (Tangled) and even Cinderella (Cinderella), Brave follows the adventures of Merida (Kelly Macdonald), a Scottish princess who is unhappy with the path that has been laid out before her. Merida has been raised by her mother (Emma Thompson) to be a perfect princess and is expected to marry a prince from one of the surrounding clans, but what she really wants to do is ride free through the highlands and shoot her bow. Obviously this puts her in quite a bit of conflict with her mother’s desires – a conflict that is not helped by the boisterous attitude of Merida’s warrior father, Fergus (Billy Connolly). Like so many Disney princesses before her, Merida attempts to change her fate by making a dangerous wish, and like so many Disney stories before, the wish doesn’t quite go as expected, leading Merida into an adventure that requires her to protect her mother and affords mother and daughter an opportunity for greater understand of the other.
Honestly, I would like to go into more detail about the plot of Brave, because there’s a considerable plot element missing from the above description. It’s also an important piece that is missing from all of Disney’s publicity for the film, which leads me to believe the studio considers that plot element to be a spoiler. I’m trying to be respectful of that, but the end result is that the movie I saw in theaters wasn’t quite the film I expected to see. This is not a movie where a wish changes Merida’s destiny, which tends to be the focal point of the advertising. Instead, the result is something more akin to Disney’s own Freaky Friday (with Jodie Foster, not Lindsay Lohan, thank-you-very-much) where the result of the wish leads to a greater understanding between mother and child. No, Merida and her mother don’t miraculously change bodies, but the comparison is still appropriate.
Regardless of Brave being a different film than I expected to see, there is quite a bit to like here. While the story is built on the Disney approach to princesses and storytelling, it still contains Pixar’s attention to detail. Every character gets fleshed out enough that you can see them as a dynamic figure. There is no pure villainy afoot here like Disney usually relies on. As the story unfolds, it is revealed to be more about Pixar’s focus on shared cultural experiences than Disney’s princess formula – in this case, misunderstandings between the desire of a parent to want what is best for their child and the desire of a child to have the freedom to live their own life. Ariel had the same misunderstanding with her father, but her story is greatly affected by the presence of evil in the form of Ursula the sea witch. Brave has no such villain, focusing more on familial relationships than the archetypal battle of good versus evil.
As usual, Pixar delivers on the visual side. The lush highlands of Scotland are almost photorealistic, and a shot of fish swimming in a river will have you swearing that you are looking at live-action footage, not a cartoon. The presentation of bears, extremely important to the story’s narrative (this was originally titled The Bow and the Bear after all), is equally realistic. Pixar really pushed boundaries when they created James “Sully” Sullivan in Monsters Inc as far as animating fur. Sully looks like a toy compared to the bears of Brave. And yet, that photorealism is almost out of place next to the stylized characters of the movie – figures that look like they’d be more at home in a Rankin/Bass stop-motion production. It’s a little bizarre to watch a film that simultaneously looks so real and so fake, and (as usual) I find myself in absolute awe when I consider that none of these images existed outside of a computer. Pixar continues to produce quality animation, even if their narrative has been influenced slightly by the Disney partnership.
While it may be a Pixar film at heart (John Ratzenberger makes his customary appearance), there is no doubting that Brave is a film influenced by Disney. Whether that influence is a good thing or a bad thing really comes down to personal taste – can you handle watching another animated film about a disenchanted princess who wants to get her own way? Brave is certainly a stronger entry in that area that some of Disney’s own films, but the departure from Pixar’s usual formula may be too much for some fans. For me, the blend of Disney storytelling and Pixar accessibility is a nice mix, leading to another magical film from both companies, complete with a tear-jerking finale worthy of the emotional response it evokes.