Review by Elizabeth C. Bunce

This weekend, we finally got a chance to see Disney-Pixar’s Brave, which we’ve been anxiously awaiting since last summer.  It was worth the wait.  This tale of a young Scottish princess who feels stifled by her mother’s dignified plans for her future may be the finest achievement in film animation to date.  Remember the excitement and celebration around 1992’s Beauty and the BeastBrave is even better, certainly deserving of Best Picture nominations come awards season.

The movie opens with breathaking panoramic establishing shots of a cliffside highland landscape overlooking the sea.  From craggy heath to towering forest to mysterious standing stones, the world of Brave is spectacular and fully realized–a setting you’re delighted to spend the next 100 minutes soaking up.  The characters are absolutely lifelike, featuring incredibly naturalistic movement and impressively detailed textures, from the coarse wool of a well-worn kilt to the flick of a warhorse’s whiskers.  I know next to nothing about digital animation, and it doesn’t matter.  Brave looks completely real.

But you don’t go see a movie because of its technical achievements (well, most of us don’t).  You go for story, characters, action, and heart, and Brave excels here, as well.  The headstrong young heroine who “wants so much more than they’ve got planned” is nothing new–even for Disney–but Princess Merida (Kelly MacDonald, State of Play, Gosford Park, Boardwalk Empire) is a fun and spunky addition to the modern Disney Princess lineup.  Neither beauty nor tomboy, she defies pigeonholing–which is, in fact, the crux of her story.  She’s extremely likable, but her adventure is the product of her own poor judgment.  If anything, the well-built worldbuilding and visual mastery left the major plot turning point feeling a little bit rushed, but it’s forgivable.  What we really care about is how Merida will get out of the trouble she’s caused, and what follows is a truly unique story about shapeshifters, ancient curses, a one-trick witch, and the best (and possibly only) mother-daughter fantasy caught on film.

Brave is also commendable for what’s not in it–no wisecracking warthog sidekicks or bathroom humor assumed necessary to keep the kiddies entertained because they can’t possibly be expected to actually follow the story (there are a couple obligatory kilt jokes, and some slapstick silliness provided by Merida’s younger brothers, but it’s mostly relevant to the plot, not just stuck in to make toddlers squeal)… and no romance.  Merida’s unwanted potential marriage is the catalyst for the plot, but she rides off on adventure all on her own, and barely even speaks to the dubious suitors.  We all love a good romance, but Brave shines without one, and it’s a refreshing change to the Disney fairytale formula.

The strong cast features a host of notable Scots and English actors, including MacDonald, Billy Connolly (Mrs. Brown, Muppet Treasure Island) as Merida’s larger-than-life father King Fergus, and Emma Thompson (Dead Again, Much Ado About Nothing) as the quintessential medieval queen determined to shape her daughter in her own mold.

The film was directed by Mark Andrews, Brenda Chapman and Steve Purcell, and written by that trio and Irene Mecchi.  Brave is in theaters everywhere.