Braving a Change

Classic Disney animation has been the province of the princess.  From Snow White, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty through Ariel and Belle, there have been plenty of characters with whom girls could identify.  Granted, the messages those characters have communicated on a woman’s place in the world have been problematic.  Snow White and Sleeping Beauty sleeping their way into their princes’ hearts – hmmmm.  And Cinderella could be blamed for a feminine focus on footwear.

Then came Pixar, which has animated great male lead characters – Woody, Buzz, Wall-E.  They did create one of the warmest and most heartbreaking love stories ever captured on film – the first 10 minutes of UP, with Carl Fredericksen and his Ellie – but then the movie became essentially a guy’s pic.  They had an incredible run of critically-acclaimed movies that were also boffo at the box office, until their first misstep last year with Cars 2.

But there is good news on two fronts: Pixar has finally made a movie with a heroine as the central character, and they have recovered their mojo in a major way.  Brave is worth the wait.

The movie begins with Scottish king Fergus (voice by Billy Connolly) and his queen, Elinor (Emma Thompson), enjoying a birthday picnic for their young daughter Merida (Peigi Barker).  It’s a glorious day until a huge, evil bear tries to maul Elinor and Merida.  Fergus jumps in and saves them, though he loses part of his leg (off-screen) in the fight.

Fast forward over a decade.  Merida (now voiced by Kelly Macdonald) is a beautiful and spirited teenager with wild red hair flying in the wind.  She’s a deadly accurate shot with a bow and arrow who has no intention of settling down.  Unknown to her, Fergus has invited the heads of three clans – Lord Macintosh (Craig Ferguson), Lord MacGuffin (Kevin McKidd), and Lord Dingwall (Robbie Coltrane) – to bring their eldest sons to his castle to compete for Merida’s hand in marriage.  The three young men (voiced respectively by Steven Cree, McKidd again, and Callum O’Neill) are not Merida’s ideal of a husband: Macintosh throws temper tantrums, Dingwall is a weakling, and the husky MacGuffin can’t be understood when he speaks.

Merida rebels against giving up her freedom, but Elinor insists that she must choose a suitor to keep the peace among the clans.  Merida flees the castle and is led by will-o’-the-wisps to the house of a witch (Julie Waters).  Merida requests a spell that will change her mother so she won’t have to marry.  But as with all magic, you have to be very careful what you wish for, and how you wish it.

The movie’s visuals, from snow-capped peaks to the valleys and the lochs, are rendered in such amazing detail and beauty that it’s hard to remember that it’s all computer-generated.  It is panoramic and powerful.  (This is also Pixar’s first period piece.)  The humans, too, are a leap beyond where computer animation was even a few years ago.

The original director, Brenda Chapman, developed the story and co-wrote the screenplay.  She’d also worked on Beauty and the Beast and Chicken Run, assisting with the story, supervised the story on The Lion King, and had helped direct 1998’s Prince of Egypt.  Midway through production, she was replaced by Mark Andrews, assisted by Steve Purcell.  This has happened often on Pixar films.  If the vision isn’t working, they’re not afraid to toss what they have done and start again – if anything that’s the rule at the studio, rather than the exception.  All together, they have crafted a sparkling story populated by memorable characters and filled with humor, action, and heart.

The voice artists are wonderful, especially Macdonald and Thompson.  Co-director Purcell helps out, voicing the witch’s crow, and John Ratzenberger continues his run of always appearing in a Pixar feature.  For the younger MacGuffin, Kevin McKidd actually uses a Celtic dialect called Doric that was spoken in his home town of Elgin, Scotland.

There’s a little bit of crude humor, mostly playing off of the Scottish kilts, though it’s minor.  There is also a huge amount of heart-felt warmth to the story.  In Merida, we have a new Disney princess who is a worthy role model for young girls.  It is a movie that the whole family will love.

(Do stay until the end of the credits as there’s a final tag ending.  Also watch in the credits for a heartfelt dedication of the movie to Steve Jobs.  The writers used Macintosh as one of the clans in honor of him.)

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