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Review: Brave

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The formula for Disney used to be so simple: take one porn-star proportioned, doe-eyed virgin on the brink of adulthood, screw on a magical affliction, support on brackets of dysfunctional and/or single parent family, furnish with evil hags and dashing Princes heavy on bravery and light on personality, decorate with singing balls of fluff. It was like the IKEA of children's films: bright, simple, and formulaic. But feminism and animation went and ruined it all- society grew tired of damsels in distress- the 50s housewife that Disney princesses were undoubtedly modelled on seemed ridiculously outdated, insulting even. Disney's unruly child, Pixar, introduced the world to boys toys and morals for a modern audience in Toy Story, out-stripping it's parent so quickly that less than 20 years on, it's practically gobbled all of Disney up.
It's an interesting time, therefore, to be a Disney/Pixar princess. In recent years, Disney has offered some test alternatives: Tangled's Rapunzel still looked like a Playboy bunny that had hopped too far from the mansion, but she had guts and gumption and hit people over the head with frying pans. 2009's The Princess and the Frog heralded the arrival of the first black Disney princess; a character that was certainly more in tune with the contemporary woman: working two jobs to realise her dream to be a chef in her own kitchen. But 2012 gives us a gutsy heroine that blows these previous efforts out of the water: Brave's Merida.
Brave tells the tale of a bonnie wee Scottish lassie, born to a hulking, roaring great mass of ginger and tartan, Fergus (Billy Connelly), and proud, restrained Elinor (Emma Thompson), who definitely should have been a news reader in Edinburgh in pearls and a twin set, gently cooing ochs and ayes in another life (Thompson obviously never got the memo that we were in the ancient highlands). Merida (Kelly MacDonald) is as frustrated with her lot as a Glaswegian in a whiskey drought. Huffy, distracted, unwilling to sew, sit up straight, play the harp or wear dresses, she relishes time to herself, when she can ride out in to the wild on a disproportionately large Shire horse and shoot arrows to her hearts content. But the final straw for Merida is her parent's demand that she must immediately marry into another clan to smooth over clan relations- important stuff in the highlands. Cue a comedy ensemble of weedy suitors, unintelligibly Scottish suitors, vain suitors, and all their mad, bum flashing, mallet wielding, round-bellied family and friends. With the eyes of every clan on her, her parent's reputation in the balance, and the political equilibrium of Scotland at stake, Merida must find a way to change her fate. Of course, a trail of will o' the wisps, a comedy witch (Julie Walters- played awfully like Jennifer Saunders' fairy godmother in Shrek), enchanted confectionaries and comedy baby triplets later, all has not gone quite to plan... and unfortunately, as Merida's fate gets ever more complicated, any trace of a gripping plot slips further into obscurity.
Although the storyline is simply not up to scratch alongside Pixar's previous efforts-not quite as inane as Cars, but certainly no Finding Nemo- the central character of Merida goes some way in salvaging the film as a whole. Fiesty, spirited and independent she certainly is (Merida competing for ownership of her own heart will make your ovaries quiver with pride). Elinor appears to represent the previous generation of Disney princesses- dutiful and old fashioned- the whole film seems to imply that this type of princess is growing old and growing out, replaced by a new age of princesses re-defining the genre... about time, folks.
The wild and wind-blown setting of the craggy Scottish highlands also keeps Brave's head above the water- the scenery is ruggedly beautiful, with waterfalls crashing over fierce rock faces, moss-laden forests, and- strangely- only one wee spell of rain! Having grown up with Scottish parents, I'm certainly more susceptible to Scottish nostalgia (in particular, a reference to tatty bogles which almost made me jump from my seat to inform the rest of the cinema about the legend of big scary bogles...), but any cynics who thought Brave would merely pay passing homage to Scotland's culture and heritage can eat their words (cooked in a sheep's stomach for authenticity please)- it's there in bucket loads.
It is only a shame that with such promising foundations, Brave fails to deliver the real emotional gut-wrenching that Pixar is so exquisitely capable of. The moral of a Pixar story is usually a well-observed, intricate, complex and subtle beast, told in an adult language that it expects children to understand- and they do. Brave deals in universal, cheap and easy-to-come-by morals, speaks in fairytale language and drives it's point home with over-egged imagery: you hate the dark, red eyed beasts, you love everyone else. There's not much wrong with this kind of story- and every little girl's idol should be just like Merida, rather than the Sleeping Beauties of this world- but when Pixar is involved, I expect to leave the cinema knowing a little bit more about how my head and heart works, and Brave fell sadly short.
★★★