Note: this review contains several allusions to certain events which occur late in the film, including a brief, non-specific discussion of the ending. I wouldn't consider any of them spoilers if I were reading this, but they do tell you a lot about the overall emotional arc of the characters. So if you want that to be a surprise (although you'll probably be able to guess where this story is going once you're past the first half hour or so), you may want to avoid reading this until after seeing the movie.
A review of Brave after the jump:
Over the years, the films of Pixar Animation Studios have gained a much deserved reputation for being among the most inspired and uniquely brilliant motion pictures around. This is a studio whose movies have featured stories about robots falling in love and rats becoming chefs (among others). So at first glance, a fairly tale centered around a princess who's appalled at the idea of an arranged marriage seems downright mundane by comparison. But this incredibly brief synopsis doesn't really do justice to the film. Yes, Brave's story isn't especially remarkable at first glance, but the way that story is told is nonetheless dazzlingly inventive and powerful.
The animation in particular is some of most stunning you'll ever see, and I say that as someone who's seen most of Hayao Miyazaki's films. Brave's visuals can't quite compete with the best of those (few movies can), but its depiction of the Scottish locales where Princess Merida's (Kelly Macdonald) story takes place is nonetheless simply awe-inspiring. While Pixar's films have obviously always featured superb animation, this is like nothing I've ever seen from them. The scenery has an almost magical quality to it, which is fitting for a film in which magic plays a key role. And it adds to the movie's extraordinary level of energy and life.
Not that Brave really needs any help in that department. It grips you from the start, thanks largely to Merida's immediately captivating story and powerful screen presence*. The film's major theme (told to us by her in a voiceover) is changing our fate, and we soon see why she wishes to change hers. She's spent her life learning the ways of a princess from her mother Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson), but hates every minute of it: preferring to do things such as going horseback riding and shooting arrows using the bow her father Fergus (Billy Connolly) gave her. This predictably creates conflict between mother and daughter, and that conflict only gets worse when Elinor tells her she is meant to marry one of three possible suitors: each the son of a lord in her father's kingdom.
Merida's attempts to change her apparent destiny eventually lead to her seeking the help of a witch. And it's here that I have to stop for fear of spoilers, because what the witch's spell does is something best experienced without any prior knowledge whatsoever. What I can say is that the film sort of steps away from the theme of fate for a while in order to focus on the relationship between Elinor and Merida: a relationship that to me bears a certain resemblance to that of Marlin and Nemo in Finding Nemo. Both films are in some way about parents learning to accept things about their children that they initially resisted. In the case of the latter film, it was Marlin accepting that Nemo was growing up. In Brave, it's Elinor coming to terms with the fact that her child's path is going to be drastically different from the one she envisioned, and realizing that this is perfectly fine.
But it's also about Merida realizing that her mother really does have her best interests at heart and wants her to be happy, however misguided her initial actions may have been. There's a scene late in the film in which Elinor is in grave danger but still manages to relay a message to her daughter. It's one of the most beautiful emotional moments in the movie: connecting the idea of fate—and how it's not set in stone—to the journey of understanding which the two characters have been embarking on for much of Brave's running time. This isn't Pixar's best film (it probably wouldn't even make the top five), but it's definitely one of their most emotionally deep.
Of course, the fact that this is a Pixar movie means that it's not just about the emotion. While Brave is arguably among the studio's darkest efforts to date, it still contains plenty of wonderfully inspired comedy. Much of it is provided by the antics of Merida's three younger brothers, who are hilarious every moment they're on screen. And there are just so many ingenious comic moments involving characters such as Fergus and the clan lords. In short, this will wind up being both one of the most moving films of the year and one of the funniest, when all is said and done.
Finally, it's great to see such a feminist take on the fairy tale genre. Too many fairy tales (almost all of them, really) involve the heroine's happiness being largely dependent on the love of a handsome prince. Merida has no interest in this, or in any other aspect of the traditional gender roles romanticized in most of the classic tales. And neither does the film, which instead gives us a new (and extremely satisfying) kind of storybook ending: one not dependent on princes or marriage—or any men whatsoever—but rather on the bond between a mother and her daughter.
Brave is remarkable in the way it manages to take a lot of seemingly familiar elements—seriously, I've lost track of the number of times we've seen a story in which some sort of magic spell has to be undone within a certain time frame—and transform them into something truly extraordinary. Obviously this is not a perfect film (no movie is), but I didn't see any notable flaws. Everything about it is basically flawless, from the voice acting to the score. Year after year we have high expectations for Pixar, and most of the time they either meet or exceed them. This is definitely one of those occasions.
Quick Thoughts on La Luna: This is one of the finest Pixar shorts I've ever seen. So beautiful and full of wonder. It gets an A as well.
* Yes, "screen presence" is usually used to refer to actors in live-action films. But why can't it be used to talk about an animated character?