★★ / ★★★★
Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald) is a princess whose life is planned out by her mother. Each day she is trained how to behave, speak, and express herself as lady, but most of the time her mind is occupied by thoughts of perfecting the craft of the bow and arrow. The tension between the Princess Merida and Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson) reaches a peak when the latter invites three clans to their kingdom and the former must choose which eldest male to marry. Enraged by her mother’s unrelenting efforts to abide by tradition, Merida runs to the woods and comes across a cottage owned by a witch. A deal is made. Merida believes that if her mother is changed somehow then Merida will be free to alter her fate.
Although entertaining on the surface because of its technical mastery, “Brave” does not have a deep enough story in order for the inevitable realizations of mother and daughter to be compelling. And since the screenplay lacks dramatic focus, in its several attempts to establish layers of complexity in the heroine’s personality and motivations, conflicting messages about independence are created instead.
I admired the look of the picture because right from its opening scenes, we immediately get a sense of community and family within the kingdom. The citizens are composed of various shapes and sizes in terms of face and body size but they do not come across as showy. But the longer we spend time looking at them, whether on the side or the background, the more we get a sense of their occupation or where they rank in the hierarchy. Moreover, the indoors and outdoors share equally detailed images, from the many bricks that make up the castle to the verdant leaves of trees just swaying along a light breeze. The people, animals, objects, and plants have a specific energy about them and the animators tend to force them to interact to create fun and exciting action sequences.
In some ways, it is refreshing that the film does not have a defined villain. The witch (Julie Walters) that Merida turns to for help is not at all evil even though the set-up is quite similar to Ariel wanting to pursue her own destiny on Ron Clements’ “The Little Mermaid.” I found the witch funny and adorable but she is not given more than ten minutes of screen time. It is a shame because her look and voice are so different from the other characters that she is immediately memorable. It would have been an interesting twist if the witch had been a sort of role model for Merida without necessarily holding her hand and pushing her to do what is right as it would need to maintain the picture’s goal of creating a strong, independent-thinking, and bow-and-arrow-wielding Disney princess.
In other ways, the film not having a defined villain is its Achilles’ heel. While Merida’s personality is as fiery as her bushy, curly red hair, there is no one for us to root against as strongly as we want Merida to come out on top. The legendary bear named Mor’du is scary especially when up close but we come to learn only very little about him. Not once is he given chance to express himself outside out of angry roars and wild thrashing. It does not help that each time the beast is threatened by a human character with a sharp weapon, I caught myself thinking whether or not the film will show physical contact as opposed to being completely enveloped by the conflict.
Younger children will be entertained by “Brave,” directed by Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman, because plenty of cute and interesting-looking things grace the screen, the music is quite catching, and there is an element of magic in its world. The rest, however, might feel like so much more could have been done to the story, especially within the context of its Scottish-inspired culture, if the writers had been a little braver to really push the envelope and really think about Merida as a character instead of her commerciality.