DIRECTED BY Mark Andrews & Brenda Chapman
STARS Kelly Macdonald, Billy Connolly
Brave (Photo: Disney & Pixar)
Belle's mom in Beauty and the Beast? Dead. Cinderella's mom? Deceased. Ariel's mom in The Little Mermaid? Nowhere to be found. Jasmine's mom in Aladdin? Kaput. And this is just a small sampling from the Disney universe, where mother-daughter dynamics rarely come into play because the storytellers have elected to deep-six Mom before the story proper even comes into focus.
Pixar, which of course is now under the auspices of the House That Walt Built, hasn't been much more charitable to Mommie Dearest, with only The Incredibles' Helen Parr/Elastigirl (and, if we're stretching, Andy's mom from the Toy Story trio) figuring into this conversation. And there isn't anything to even discuss when it comes to solo female protagonists, since no Pixar release has placed a woman front and center.
All of this has changed with Brave, which not only focuses on a memorable heroine but also takes the time to delve into a mother-daughter relationship. Couple this with the fact that this marks the first Pixar movie directed by a woman, and it all sounds like a forward step for this animated boys' club — at least until one examines the evidence. For one thing, director Brenda Chapman didn't finish making the film, replaced at some point by Mark Andrews. Was she fired? Did she walk off the set? Did she get struck down by some mysterious illness? To quote Robert Preston in S.O.B., "Is Batman a transvestite? Who knows?" Chapman is also credited for coming up with the original story and screenplay for Brave, but as the movie subsequently went through three other writers, perhaps she was displeased with the direction the project took. I wouldn't be surprised: Brave is a perfectly pleasant outing, but for a Pixar release, it's frighteningly tame and conventional, with little of the complexity that has marked the majority of the studio's past efforts.
If nothing else, Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald) makes for a vibrant heroine: With marble-smooth skin, flaming red hair seemingly modeled after early-90s Nicole Kidman, and archery skills to rival those of Robin Hood, she's a spirited Scottish lass who, in the best animated tradition, longs for independence and adventure. Her rambunctious father, King Fergus (Billy Connolly), admires her earthiness and athletic abilities, but her mother, Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson), ix nays such activities, insisting that Merida behave like a proper lady in order to land a suitable husband. Why Elinor would want her lovely daughter to marry any of the three clods presented as spousal material makes little sense, but never mind: After Merida shows up her suitors, the two women have it out, resulting in Merida storming out of the castle and right into a curse that will unite the pair in ways they couldn't have foreseen.
There's emotional resonance in the way the bond between Merida and Elinor evolves over the course of the picture, but it just barely compensates for the nonstarter nature of the big twist that propels all the second-half action. Honestly, this development (spurred by a visit to a witch's cottage) is presented in so slight a manner that I figured it was just an anecdotal interlude, not the central crux of the movie. This wouldn't matter if the filmmakers truly broke ground with the character of Merida, but while she's a memorable heroine, she's no more complicated than, say, Rapunzel in Tangled or Tiana in The Princess and the Frog. The hype declaring that Merida is the first animated heroine to not want a husband not only misinterprets the basic tenets of modern feminism but isn't even accurate (Belle, for one, didn't actively seek a partner; she was initially more interested in acquiring knowledge).
As with all Pixar efforts, this is visually outstanding, and there's plenty of rowdy humor to keep audiences entertained. But for a supposedly progressive film, Brave is marked by a notable amount of timidity.