A Brave Effort - Reviewing 2012 competition

As an unashamed Disney-oholic, Brave was the film to see for me in 2012. But did it do the studio justice? (word count 988)

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1. A Brave Effort

What did 2012 offer me? Well, the chance to indulge in my favourite genre of film: animation. And not just animation, but DISNEY animation! As anyone who knows me will know, my favourite film is Beauty and the Beast. It’s not just my favourite Disney film, it’s my favourite film. Full stop.  Everything about it is perfect: the animation is timeless, the story is enthralling, the characters are brilliant and the music is phenomenal. So, when I heard that Brenda Chapman (who helped to make Beauty) was co-director of PIXAR’s latest offering, Brave, I knew I had to see it. True, I didn’t have the benefit of seeing it on the big screen, so the following review is based from the DVD release. To be honest, it’s probably better this way – all 3D does for me is induce tension headaches.

The story follows Merida, a Scottish princess who’s a dab hand with a bow and arrow and whose thirst for danger is as untameable as her fiery red ringlets. But of course, Merida has to contend with her antagonist. No, not a fairy who’s vowed to kill her or an evil stepmother who won’t let her go to the ball – this time it’s her straight-laced, traditionalist Mum. All Mum wants is to marry Merida off to a good suitor, as is the law of the land, but – needless to say – Merida’s not that kind of princess. So it’s off to the local witch (every fairytale kingdom has one) for a spell to change Mum – more literally than Merida expected, it transpires. Now it’s up to her to reverse the spell before it’s too late (it’s a fairy tale – no spells are permanent).

Let’s start with the story. If it doesn’t sound much like PIXAR’s typical output, that’s probably because it isn’t - it’s much more like what we’re used to seeing from that fairy tale factory known as Disney. I suppose they can’t make a film with a female lead unless she’s some shade of princess (I don’t, however, think that always has to be a bad thing). The story is somewhat derivative - it is, after all, based on a Scottish folk tale called ‘The Bear and the Bow’, but there are other parallels to be spotted. Merida and her Mum fight in much the same way that Ariel and Triton do in The Little Mermaid, Merida’s rebellious antics will inevitably remind you of Mulan, and some of the final scenes have clear echoes of Beauty and the Beast. Basically, if you were expecting a PIXAR groundbreaker in the vein of Up or WALL.E, this was never going to be the film for you. If, like me, you were more expecting something in the typical Disney vein, chances are you’ll find it brilliant. It certainly was gripping and had many touching moments, and though the ending was pretty predictable there was NO ROMANCE! Hallelujah! I like a bit of romance as much as the next person, but in films aimed at little girls it’s far too common. They need to know that there’s life outside riding off into the sunset with some handsome prince!

Then there’s the animation. Do I even need to say it? It’s PIXAR: stunning animation is basically a given.  With vibrant Celtic blues and greens, beautifully detailed environments and uniquely created characters, the Highlands have never looked so beautiful. A standout moment has to be Merida’s epic slow-mo archery scene – you’ll have to pinch yourself just to remember that this is computer generated imagery, and not real life. The music, composed by Patrick Doyle, is just as overtly Scottish as Mulan’s was overtly Chinese, with bagpipes, dulcimers and bodhrans aplenty. Unlike Mulan, however, Brave was not pitched as a musical and any songs that do appear are generally sung as voiceover, and not by the characters themselves. In theory, that’s brilliant – I felt that Mulan didn’t really need singing – but it only works if the songs are engaging and memorable, not bland and forgettable as Brave’s were. Even the star power of Mumford and Sons and Birdy couldn’t save “Learn Me Right”. There was, however, one standout song: the beautiful lullaby “Noble Maiden Fair”. Sung very sweetly by Emma Thompson and little Peigi Barker entirely in Scottish Gaelic, it becomes the theme to the once-strong relationship between Merida and her mother.

Of course you cannot have a decent film without a decent main character, and Merida was exactly that. She was, I felt, everything The Little Mermaid should have been: she was a feisty, pretty redhead, but she didn’t trade off her own beauty (and, let’s face it, she could out-feist Ariel any day of the week). She made a bargain with a witch, but she didn’t use it to drastically alter her body and give up her best talent for a man. She had a fractious relationship with one of her parents, but she actually learned a lesson from it and moreover she fixed it! Basically, she was a typical teenager – moody, cheeky, always convinced she’s in the right – but she also had a heart, not to mention the capacity to change. Merida truly lived up to the name of her film: she proved herself not with some big bombastic world-saving feat a la Mulan – her main adversary in the ‘feminist princess’ stakes – she simply admitted her own faults, saving her family in the process. If that isn’t brave, I don’t know what is.

What you make of Brave will depend on which part of its name you pay most attention to - Disney/PIXAR’s ‘Brave’. Focus on the PIXAR part and you will be disappointed, as it is not a wildly original, completely unique tale that anyone can enjoy. Focus on the Disney part – which implies that it is a sweet, coming-of-age fairy tale – and you will be pleased. Nothing will ever beat Beauty for me, but Brave comes a close second.

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