Pixar has an amazing track record with its movies. The quality of animation is superb and their attention to story is a cut (or two) above most studios. Their worst “failures” are still better than most movies out there. I’d put Cars (both 1 and 2) at the bottom of their list, and I still had a good time watching them. At their best, they blow me away. Toy Story, The Incredibles, Monsters Inc. – every one of them dropped my jaw. I’m still amazed that Wall-E got me to feel so much about characters who don’t even really speak.
This time around, Pixar took on a new challenge – girls.
This is a subject and demographic that is lacking quality representation, especially in animation. What they get is generally princesses looking for (or possibly stumbling upon) their “true love.” It’s all about being rescued by a guy for the most part. Even when the story isn’t exactly about finding the prince, one still shows up anyway and hooks in and their relationship is the focus in the end. Look at any Disney film (even the “strong female” ones like Tangled). You won’t find any that really break the mold. (And don’t get me started on females in the superhero genre.)
So, Pixar went with a princess in Brave. But I give them all sorts of credit for how they handled it. While the plot mover is Princess Merida’s arranged marriage, that is not the focus. There is no “true love” la-de-da happy ending. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a happy ending, but were it not for comic relief they could have written this movie with almost no men in it at all. There is no overly romantic dream of living the good life in a castle with a prince by your side. Love is important in the film, but it’s the love and acceptance of your family – and specifically your mother. The mother-daughter bond is the true center of this movie.
(FYI: this paragraph could be considered extremely light spoilers, but really it’s even less than is in the trailer.) In the beginning, the mother is the “villain” – as in most princess movies – but that term is really a misnomer. It’s more like adversary. She’s not actually evil. It’s clear she loves Merida deeply. She just has a different perspective than her daughter, and is having difficulty communicating with her teen – a problem most mothers face. She can’t quite get across to her why she thinks tradition is so important, and she’s a bit pushy about it. Merida resents the path her mother is setting for her and runs off. She meets a witch and, blinded by pride and resentfulness, makes a huge mistake (as one does when interacting with witches in these things). Mother goes from villain to victim and Merida must fix the wrong to save not only her family but her entire kingdom.
There is some great stuff here. This is, to my memory, the closest we’ve ever come to a real “hero” movie for girls. That doesn’t mean it’s a movie about a girl taking up her weapons and kicking butt like a boy (though there is important weapons play from her, the trailer may be misleading about its frequency). She is not fluff, unrealistically romantic, a maiden in distress, sexualized, or merely a girl in what was really a boy’s story. It’s about her as a person, accepting and forming her destiny, growing in character without giving up who she is – growing up. The consequences of failure are great, both personally and on a large scale, and she has to fight against great odds, physically, emotionally, and mentally, to succeed.
While all those elements are there, I admit they could be stronger in parts. It does rely on common tropes and the solutions to some problems come a little easier than they should. It’s solid and a great improvement on the standard princess story, but not an innovative, knock-your-socks-off-awesome Pixar film. That’s not a harsh criticism. It’s probably the middle of the pack for a Pixar film, but if you look at the Pixar films against the competitors, I’d take middle of that pack any day of the week.
This movie is not perfect, but it is a step in the right direction – a large step – towards what I would like to see offered for my girls as they grow up. Please, somebody, pick up this ball and run with it.
That’s all I have to say about the story, but there are two other things worth quickly mentioning: the visuals and the music. As you would expect from Pixar, the visuals are outstanding. Merida’s hair alone is incredible. It’s amazing how far they’ve taken that technology. The scene where you see the fish in the water looks like somebody inserted a filmed scene from a documentary. Unbelievably good. And the music? Loved it. I’m a bit of a sucker for Celtic-inspired stuff. I actually bought one track from the soundtrack before I saw the film (though I didn’t hear more than a clip of it before I watched the movie). Plus, the end credits song features Mumford and Sons. I’m considering buying the entire soundtrack.
Here’s the song I bought, which turns out to be tied to one of my favorite scenes in the film.
Have you seen it yet? What did you think?
(If you want to know the basic story – with spoilers – Target has released a narrated Digital Book version of the storybook. There are links to kids’ activities within. Great version for young kids.)