There’s been some talk lately about whether Pixar’s creative juices have begun to dry up. After 2010’s Toy Story 3 and last year’s Cars 2, and with prequel Monsters University due next year, there’s certainly mounting evidence for the prosecution. But then along comes Brave, which takes aim at such idle chatter and valiantly quashes it (for now at least). On the surface this is the latest in a long line of Disney fairy-tale movies: young Princess Merida has no wish to follow the path of domestic wedded bliss laid down for her by her mother, wanting instead to remain free to roam her beloved country and choose her own future. But after an encounter with a witch and a hasty wish that goes awry, she is forced to reconsider her life and learns to accept responsibility for herself. It could almost be Disney’s Aladdin transposed to medieval Scotland and told from the perspective of Princess Jasmine.
But it’s worth remembering that this is Pixar, not Disney, and small things make all the difference. If this were Disney then the twee view of historical Scotland would likely be turned up to 11. The epic mountainous scenery is certainly present and correct, from lochs at sunset to mist-shrouded forests; Pixar’s customary attention to detail combined with a slightly exaggerated sense of reality resulting in one of the most gorgeous films of the year.
Directors Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman also embrace the traditional Hollywood stereotype of the Highland clansmen as loud-mouthed drunken braggarts who would just as soon lop your head off as look at you; but it’s wrapped up in a good-natured cartooniness that appropriately recalls the humour of René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo’s Asterix comic books. There’s even a hint of sauciness with the Queen’s bosomy handmaid – it’s not exactly Carry On Up The Kilt, but for a Disney-funded animation it at least nods in the direction of the unusual (if only Kenneth Williams could have voiced the magical will-o’-the-wisps that guide Merida on her quest).
Family relationships are what drive Pixar’s pictures – The Incredibles or Finding Nemo being obvious examples, or even Carl and Ellie in Up – and it’s the rupture between mother and daughter that provides the emotional core of Brave. The pace picks up in the second half as Merida tries to save her mum from the curse that she inflicted on her, and inevitably learns some hard lessons about life along the way. It may be the old ‘teen rebelling against their parents’ routine, but it works rather nicely. The darker side of the Scottish wilds also come to the fore, rewarding patience with greater atmosphere and a race against time, while the eleventh hour introduction of a villainous prince adds impetus and drama to the exciting denouement, even if he is entirely superfluous to the plot.
Unquestionably this is slighter stuff than we’re used to from those Pixar wizards; it lacks the storytelling power and emotional resonance of its greatest triumphs. But Brave‘s visual panache and robust humour still provide sufficient pleasures to make it worthy of the ‘P’ name.