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Brave - review

Pixar need to know that technical wizardry doesn’t disguise the tiresome life lessons, says Ryan Gilbey.

Brave (PG)
dirs: Mark Andrews, Brenda Chapman

Rich, vivid, overflowing with untamed passion. But enough about the heroine’s hair – how good is the rest of Brave? Not so much good, it transpires, as significant. This is a film of firsts for the computer animation studio Pixar. It’s the company’s first project with a period setting: we’re in the Scottish Highlands circa Long, Long Ago. And this is also its first with a female protagonist. After a sports car, a tin box and a rat, I suppose it had to get around to one eventually.

Most animated features make no secret of favouring the Y chromosome: the father and son in Disney’s Chicken Little started out as mother and daughter before undergoing gender reassignment midway through production. The film-makers argued that there was more comedy and conflict in the father/son dynamic. Had they never watched Judy and Liza at the Palladium? Even the otherwise excellent How to Train Your Dragon, a movie to which Brave bears some resemblance, killed off its hero’s mother, contrary to the book on which it was based. In this context, it’s no footling matter for Brave to buck the trend by focusing on a mother/daughter relationship, even if gender idiosyncrasies are absorbed into a stock narrative about learning to be a team player.

The friction between Queen Elinor (voiced by Emma Thompson) and her daughter, Merida (Kelly Macdonald), drives the story. A father, King Fergus (Billy Connolly), is also present but it’s clear by his unruly red mane that he is in Merida’s corner. It’s Elinor, with her brown hair (brown!), who is the obstacle. She wants her daughter to be prim and delicate; Merida prefers to spend her time on archery and mountain climbing. It’s really a pity the girl wasn’t born in China 1,000 years earlier because she and Mulan could have had sleepovers and pillow fights and been total BFFs.

When Elinor arranges for Merida to marry, the girl reacts as many of us would: she requests a spell from the local witch to change her mother’s mind. What she receives is a tartlet resembling something from one of the pricier supermarkets, possibly involving brie and cranberry. The results, once Elinor takes a bite, are grisly. Sorry, I mean grizzly: she turns into a bear. This is bad news for Elinor’s well-being, not to mention the upholstery. Many years earlier, Fergus was attacked by a bear, which took one of his legs as a souvenir. Ever since, he has been understandably twitchy around these creatures. So Merida must find a way to break the spell before it becomes permanent, while also ensuring that one of her parents doesn’t turn the other into an attractive display item in the banquet hall.

The usual learning experience ensues. When the time comes for the daughter to deliver a rousing speech, she has to interpret the hand gestures of her mother, who knows what to say but, being a bear, falls short in the area of public speaking. Elinor also benefits directly from the talents she had underrated in her daughter: fishing, hunting, surviving in the wild. It would have been nice to see a complementary scene in which Merida learns from this lumbering bear a historically feminine skill such as sewing or dressmaking, especially as the most memorable images in the film involve the beast clinging to the vestiges of human decorum – balancing a tiara on its head or dabbing its snout demurely with a leaf.

Brave has the kind of technical detail that provokes admiring sighs in anyone raised on basic cel animation. The dense weave of the target into which Merida’s arrows sink or the bounce of her helter-skelter curls is more impressive than the swooping shots over the glens, which are a bit Scottish tourist board. Despite its technical advances, the movie is indebted to a storytelling style that finds therapeutic life lessons beneath every rock.

Maintaining one’s individuality within the family is a challenge relevant to all children. I just don’t remember older films making such a fuss about it. The Jungle Book was comparatively rudimentary in its animation techniques but at least its songs never urged Mowgli, as Brave does with Merida, to “Chase the wind!” and “Touch the sky!” and all those other things you only hear about in advertisements for energy drinks or tampons. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article first appeared in the 13 August 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The New Patriotism