Let me begin by saying what this movie is not. This movie isn’t the next Up, Toy Story 3 or Wall-E, and despite similar themes about parenthood and independence, it isn’t the next Finding Nemo either. That is to say, if you expect to watch a movie with a deeply satisfying emotional undercurrent about life and the human experience as Pixar is often known to deliver, you would leave the cinema wanting more. But Brave is nonetheless a decent attempt aimed at something more middlebrow and enjoyable, akin to (and better than, I would say) its other less prestigious films like Monsters Inc or Cars 2.
I think that the main reason for its poor reception is that for most people, being just “all right” isn’t good enough for Pixar. While I do feel that the movie has been met with unfairly high expecations, I don’t agree that it’s because of the explicitly female themes, which some critics who support the movie claim. I think the reason it isn’t as well received isn’t that audiences are sexist. Rather, it’s the lack of spunk and wit in the script, the canned slapsticky jokes, and the relatively bland execution of the story that makes it sub-par.
Brave is Pixar’s attempt to subvert the classic princess story that Disney has perfected. Merida (Kelly Macdonald) is a brash, impulsive princess who is determined to defy Scottish tradition and the expectations placed on her and how she should act as a lady. Her vehement refusal to conform to the codes of royal etiquette is straining her relationship with her mother Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson), who is equally determined to teach her how to compose herself like a proper princess. This central tension escalates to wackier heights when Merida, with the help of a witch, casts a spell on her mother to try to change her mind and let her be.
Things, of course, go awry. The spell leads to disastrous results that forces both mother and daughter to hide in the foggy woods, where suddenly, Merida’s “unfeminine” qualities such as her hunting skills and proficiency with the bow and arrow become much more essential to their very survival. While there are heartwarming moments of maternal bonding, the kind that makes me consider this a partner piece to Finding Nemo, the movie occasionally lapses into cliched territory where the physical comedy takes precedence over any attempt at creating a genuine emotional connection.
But aside from the maturation of their mother-daughter relationship, this movie is also about self-empowerment and taking control over one’s destiny. One of the climactic scenes of the movie is a speech that Merida gives championing the need to break away from customs so that people can carve out their own identities and make choices based on who they are and not what society wants them to be. Merida, as it turns out, is a pretty convincing liberal.
One aspect where Pixar did not disappoint is in the animation, which featured the rich and lush landscapes of the Scottish countryside. It is a good addition to the multiple worlds that Pixar has created, and it proves that at least to this extent, Pixar shows that it is still at the top of its game. What it needs is to recapture the original magic they had that hopefully, unlike the will-o’-the-wisps that guided Merida in her journey, doesn’t turnout to be ephemeral.