Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald) is a Scottish princess whose most prominent feature is a carrot-coloured cascade of curls, and she’s barely a baby when her father, the king Fergus (Billy Connolly), presents her with a bow. The queen, Elinor (Emma Thompson), protests – and will keep protesting as Merida grows up into a tomboy who likes nothing better than to mount her horse and practice her marksmanship with fiendishly positioned targets in the nearby forest. Elinor struggles with Merida the way Henry Higgins wrestled with Eliza Doolittle. “Enunciate,” she reprimands her daughter. Eat in small portions. Don’t raise your voice. Don’t place your weapons on the dinner table. Like Higgins, Elinor wants to mould a misfit into an image of respectability and acceptability. And like Eliza, Merida rebels, never more so than when Elinor arranges for royal suitors to seek her daughter’s hand in marriage. In order to prepare for the event, Merida is stuffed into a corset. Of course she can’t breathe.
As a live-action drama, Brave would have been about the tug of war between two strong-willed women, some sort of Terms of Endearment where mother and daughter love one another and also resent the strangulating hold they have on each other. This relationship is the centerpiece of the latest Pixar feature, whose finest stretch unfolds as Merida and Elinor find themselves in the forest – a magical island of green, where will-o’-the-wisps show the way – after a spell backfires. (This is a Scotland right out of Brigadoon, where Gene Kelly stumbled upon a magic village untouched by time.) The best Pixar movies are those with the strongest, most well-defined characters, and Merida and Elinor in these portions comport themselves in ways far removed from the realm of “kiddie animation.” They snarl at each other. They save each other. They teach each other. In a scant fifteen minutes, which is how long Merida and Elinor are in the forest by themselves, we witness a stoutly uncompromised mother-daughter relationship. If the film was set in the present day, they’d be ducking into an ice-cream parlour after a grueling hour of therapy.
Unfortunately, Brave faces the compulsion of also being a comedy, a task entrusted to the males, primarily Fergus and his tiny, impish triplets, who keep veering towards slapstick farce just as Merida and Elinor strive for more sentimental underpinnings. And this becomes the film’s second tug of war, a contest that no side really wins. Brave is middling Pixar, whose stray moments of subversion (despite all the masculine archery, it’s the traditionally feminine skill of sewing that fixes things and fosters a happy ending) can’t quite overcome the looming shadow of Tangled, which recently set the gold standard for animated entertainments about female empowerment. (And that film’s heroine, too, was distinguished by her hair.) Tangled was from Disney, and it had enchantingly picturised musical numbers, whereas the songs here are disappointingly generic. There’s a lot, including a comically oafish bear, that Brave shares with the now-familiar Disney sensibility, and that’s not something we would have thought possible earlier. After all these years of thinking out of the box, Pixar is now ensconced safely inside, as harmless as a Christmas present. The film might have been titled Timid.
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