Set in a romanticised Scotland at an undetermined point in the past, Brave represents a number of firsts for Pixar, the creative powerhouse behind such wonderful films as WALL-E, Up and Toy Story 3. It's their first period piece, their first fairytale, their first film to revolve around a female protagonist, and, as a result, the first of their films that fits into the tradition of the Disney princess. It's also their first film after the somewhat regrettable Cars 2, which represented the first commercial and critical disappointment for the studio since it started making features in 1995. Brave, then, not only has to break new ground for Pixar, but also prove that Cars 2 was a mere misstep, rather than the sign of a greater creative decline for one of the most consistent companies in the industry.
Considering that Pixar's reputation has been built upon making films built on bold, unconventional premises with an undercurrent of incredibly clear, strong storytelling, their move towards one of the more oft-told motifs in animation history might be construed as a step back for the company. This impression might also be strengthened when we consider the arguably retrograde action of making their first female protagonist, a character that should be dynamic and active, a princess, a character type whose role in stories is so often defined by her passivity.
Almost as if refuting these claims before they could even be made, Brave wastes no time in dispelling the notion that its princess is not a damsel waiting to be rescued. Merida (Kelly MacDonald) is shown to be a smart, forthright young woman who loves archery and the adventure inherent in exploring the forests and wilderness around her family's castle. Yet she chafes under the authority of her mother, Elinor (Emma Thompson), who has Merida's entire life planned out for her, and it is one that involves betrothal to the son of one of the other chieftains, followed by a life of prim and proper behavior as a queen in her own right. Yet all the suitors presented to her are preposterous, being dim-witted, ugly, preening or all three, and Merida sets about finding a way out of her situation. Brave is a princess film that makes a point of not having a Prince Charming, either as a rescuer or a romantic interest. If Merida is going to achieve anything in the story, she is going to have to do it herself.
After entering and winning an archery contest called to determine who shall have her hand, Merida and her mother argue and Merida runs away from the castle crying bitter, angry tears brought on by her own sense of powerlessness. Once in the forest, she discovers a way of changing her fate, but this leads to unexpected consequences that force Merida and her mother to confront their relationship, and in the process, come to learn something of how each of them views the world.
Whilst Brave is a consistently entertaining yarn filled with adventure, magic and humour, it is at its core a film about mother-daughter relationships, and it is from that dynamic that it draws its emotional power. The early scenes of the film are fraught with the natural tension that arises from the point at which a daughter's dreams and a mother's expectations meet and diverge, whilst flashbacks of Merida as a young child are shot with a hazy warmth that provides a pitch perfect contrast to their later conflict. Even once the film moves into its second half and places both of them in mortal peril, the cornerstone of the story remains the way in which these two strong women learn to appreciate each other's point of view.
Director Mark Andrews and his co-writers/directors Brenda Chapman and Steve Purcell never make the mistake of portraying Merida as wholly right, her behavior seems positively bratty at times, or Elinor as a total villain: it is clear from the beginning that she loves Merida and wants only the best for her, she just might not know what that is. It's a balanced, nuanced depiction that recalls the heartrending father/son dynamic between Nemo and Marlin in Finding Nemo, though it goes deeper into the tensions of that kind of relationship by having the characters spend so much time together over the course of the story.
However, they rarely talk to each other despite their proximity, since part of the story renders Merida unable to communicate with her mother. Whilst this conceit is often used for the purpose of slapstick, it works just as well as a metaphor for their relationship. They try to relate to each other, but there are barriers - either cultural, psychological or supernatural - that prevent them from really understanding the other person's perspective. It's only once they are put in a situation where they have to figure out how to communicate that they begin to identify with each other. It's a skilled, subtle approach to the story that is nicely hidden within a device that could be used purely for physical comedy.
It is this blending of emotion with comedy that highlights the greatest weakness of Brave, though, which is that, outside of its central relationship, the rest of the film feels a little forced and dry. The humour that comes from Merida and Elinor works because it has an emotional underpinning, but the frequent slapstick bits involving Merida's three young brothers or the rivalry between her father (Billy Connolly) and the leaders of the other tribes (voiced by Craig Ferguson, Kevin McKidd and Robbie Coltrane) are only sporadically funny, and worse, feel like calculated additions to appease small children who might be bored by the mother-daughter stuff. Pixar have proven time and again to be experts at blending emotional heft with funny jokes, or willing to put the jokes aside in favour of the story, but there is a clear imbalance in Brave that is never fully righted.
At the same time, the emotional beats of the film don't hit as hard as those in other Pixar films. It's a little unfair to compare Brave to the other films in the studio's back catalogue in this regard, since not every film can have something with the power of the opening five minutes of Up or the last five minutes of Toy Story 3, but most Pixar films manage to pack a strong emotional punch at some point, and Brave never quite seems to get there. It comes very close, but it lacks that one moment that cystalises everything about the film on emotional, narrative and thematic levels. As such, Brave winds up being merely very good: beautiful to look at, heartfelt and with a compelling central relationship, but not exceptionally great.