US (2012) Dir. Brenda Chapman

In ancient Scotland young princess Merida of Clan Dunbroch has no interest in following the royal protocol as laid out by her mother Queen Elinor, while her father the boisterous Fergus encourages Merida’s tomboyish side. Now her daughter is 16 years-old, Elinor thinks it is time Merida is married off to continue the goodwill within the kingdom and the heads of the main clans, Macintosh, MacGuffin and Dingwall arrive with their first born sons to compete for Merida’s hands, something appals Merida to the bone. After an argument with her mother Merida runs off where she discovers a small house in the depths of the forest, in which lives a witch. Merida asks for a spell to help change her mother and is given a cake but the witch forgets to add a very important detail.

From the almighty Pixar comes this animated adventure that seems to have picked up the gauntlet thrown down by Dreamworks’ How To Train Your Dragon by looking to Europe for storyline inspiration, this time to the fair Scottish isles. Perhaps a little heavy on stereotypes – Merida’s unkempt mane of red hair leaps to mind – it is refreshing to see made in the US but set elsewhere for a change. And it comes complete with genuine Scottish accents – although Emma Thompson may want to work on hers a little more. This may explain why the film didn’t go down so well with some US audiences since they only respond to a good old American accent. Maybe Pixar will address this balance and hire an all American voice cast for their next film…

The story is fairly simple fair with a worthy message to share. From the onset we see the clash in familial attitudes as the gargantuan King Fergus gives Merida a bow and arrow for a birthday present as child, upsetting the staid Elinor no end. The fall out between mother and daughter occurs when Merida refuses to do her royal duty and silently accept being the prize in the Highland Games. A bitter row ends with Merida cursing her mother and damaging a tapestry Elinor has made of the family before fleeing in anger. Soon, lost in the forest, Merida finds the witches house, disguised as woodcarver with countless works of art devoted to bears. This is a bit of a clue as to what happens after when Merida is given a cake that will “change Elinor” as requested. As it happens it is during this period when mother and daughter begin to bond and understand each other’s feelings despite being unable to properly communicate. However bigger problems soon appear on the horizon.

One may suspect that writer /Director Brenda Chapman has a thing for bears as much as the witch does, they play a key part in this film. In the opening scene, Fergus loses his left leg while protecting his family against a monster of a bear called Mor’du and has since clung to his need for vengeance by slaying every bear he comes into contact with. Big trouble for Elinor then… In the DVD/Blu-ray extras there is a short film that explains the origins of Mor’du which is very handy to watch filling in some very necessary gaps relating to a story the witch tells Merida about a man who wished to have the strength of ten men.

While this all sounds well and good, there is something missing from this film that prevents it from being considered among the upper echelon of Pixar classics. The second act is fairly slow and aimless before stumbling into a more energetic third act. We get the obligatory realisation ending where all foibles and previous attitude clashes are forgiven following a dramatic battle but one can’t help feel that the script was reaching for something a bit deeper but couldn’t quite grasp hold of it. Of the two opposing characters, Merida has been the most polarising, with many observers saying she is selfish right to the end, not even taking responsibility for her actions or apologising for them (which she does) when one can argue that she should have the right to choose her own partner, tradition be damned. Elinor is equally dogmatic in her approach but as Queen gets to force her hand with authority.  

But it’s not all a battle of wills between mother and daughter or man and bear, there is the usual comedic hijinks to amuse the kiddies, courtesy of Merida’s younger brothers, triplets Harris, Hubert, and Hamish, the villainously inventive and resourceful masters of mayhem. The say nothing but their presence is always felt and adds so much to the film’s appeal.

If the story is lacking the visuals are anything but. The artwork is faultless, with every blade of grass, every leaf on a tree, every ripple of water or splinter in a chunk of wood as vibrant and realistic as possible. While the perfection in replicating human faces remains out of reach thus cartoonish visages are still required to compensate, the body movements and other physical nuances are incredibly well re-enacted here, as are simple things like Merida’s nest of curly red hair. Special mention should also go to the animation and rendering of the giant bear Mor’du too. Just superb.

Brave is an ironic title since it sticks to the tried and tested formula of its fairy tale conventions, thus it doesn’t challenge the status quo. It’s gorgeous to look at and a lot of fun, with some dynamic fight scenes to boot but it is just lacking that one tangible quality to deem it “classic” Pixar. Good but not great.