Pixar is at its best when it’s making movies about rats working in restaurants and families of superheroes with not-so-super powers; not so much when it's spinning cautionary environmental tales with robots-in-love subplots and sentimental weepers about grumpy codgers “learning to love again.” Somewhere at the more golden end of that yardstick is Brave, in which a peppery redheaded Scottish princess from days of yore named Merida – her voice is provided by the wonderful Glasgow-born actress Kelly Macdonald – decides she doesn’t want to marry from the selection of gents her parents have chosen for her and would much prefer traipsing through the forest with her trusty bow-and-arrow.
Note: This review includes spoilers.
Except Brave doesn’t go where you’re probably expecting it to. (And if you’re sensitive to spoilers, you may not wish to read further.) There isn’t an ultimate prince, a swain of Merida’s choice who steps in to offer her everlasting happiness, while letting her be herself, of course. This is a story about mothers and daughters and the ways they clash over basic, seemingly simple things, only to find their ultimate connection in the very things they can’t change about each other. Even that oversimplifies Brave a little too much, but you get the idea. Brave has a marvelous secret weapon in Emma Thompson, who provides the voice for Merida’s mother, Elinor, a queen with a sense of propriety and a desire to keep her daughter from making bad decisions. But this is a queen who turns into a bear, a big growly girl with a pear-shaped body and a most unladylike manner when it comes to eating fish. The quivering, multi-hued strands of Merida’s curly mane notwithstanding — and they are a sight to behold – the character design of Bear Elinor, coupled with the personality Thompson gives her, steals the show.
You might be wondering how a queen turns into a bear. Why, via a witch’s spell, of course. Merida is at the age where she hates her parents, Thompson’s Elinor and the scruffy, burly, affectionate Fergus (Billy Connolly), chiefly because they're intent on marrying her off, and she wants none of it. She hurls hurtful words at her mother — if you’ve ever been either a teenage girl or the mother of one, the sting will be familiar — and stalks off into the forest on her trusty horse, only to stumble upon the cottage of a witch (Julie Walters), who sells Black Forest-style carved-wood gewgaws as a front for her real trade. Merida, frustrated by her mother’s directives to always behave like a proper lady, and by her insistence that she knows what’s best for her daughter, gives the witch vague, exasperated instructions to “change” her mother. The witch gives her a little magic cake to bring back to the kingdom, and Merida is off and gone before she receives instructions for its proper use.
Merida gives the cake to her mother as a wily peace offering, only to watch in dismay as Elinor first falls ill and then awakens as a half-clumsy, half-dainty she bear: Elinor Bear, horrified when she discovers her changed form, reaches instinctively for the delicate crown she wore as a human — it perches on her enlarged, furry head like a lady’s cocktail hat, giving her an aura of ridiculous elegance. But aside from the fact that Elinor simply does not like her new shape, bears are simply not welcome in her kingdom: Years earlier, when Merida was just a sprout, Fergus lost his leg to a great warrior bear and has always hoped to avenge this wrong. What would he do if he found a girl-bear in his own castle, not realizing it was his own wife? Both Elinor and Merida know the scene wouldn’t be pretty.
The best part of Brave is the section in which Merida and Bear Elinor head out into the wilderness, hoping to find the witch and learn how to break the spell. The grudging camaraderie that forms between them is more like what might happen on your stereotypical father-son camping trip: Elinor Bear scavenges for berries that she believes are edible, only to be told by her more knowledgeable daughter that they’re poisonous. Unable to speak, she points to Merida’s bow, suggesting her daughter will have to be the one to feed them. Later, Bear Elinor learns to catch her own fish in her paws, gulping the shiny wriggling things with unbridled glee.
But Bear Elinor will also do anything to protect her child, and she has the physical strength to do so. The newfound symbiosis between Elinor and her daughter could be a metaphor for lots of things, among them the way we switch from child to caretaker when our parents get older. But Brave doesn’t get too hung up on deep meanings. The story is a simple one, told with agility and grace — a little surprising, considering the movie is credited to three directors (Mark Andrews, Brenda Chapman and, as co-director, Steve Purcell) and four writers (Andrews, Purcell, Chapman and Irene Mecchi, from a story by Chapman). Perhaps it’s a wonder that Brave hangs together at all, but the picture’s charms just keep mounting in its favor: Merida has three mischievous redheaded triplet brothers, who of course love cake, especially magic cake – their transformation into miniature Three Stooge-style cubs is one of the movie’s silliest delights. And Macdonald makes Merida a likable but not overbearing heroine: At one point she utters the line “It’s just my bow,” and it comes out “It’s just m’ boe,” an adorable and hilarious niblet of Scotspeak.
But my heart belongs to Bear Elinor, whose movements and mannerisms are a tender echo of Human Elinor’s – her character is designed and drawn just that carefully. Bear Elinor becomes more and more bearlike as the spell wears on, and if she and Merida can’t reverse the witch’s handiwork, she will be a bear forever. You can see why she doesn’t want that fate: Bear Elinor is embarrassed by her furry clumsiness, by the way she devours whole fish – live ones, no less! – instead of nibbling away at them with a knife and fork, as her human self would do. Yet she’s a marvel of bearlike grace, almost ballerina-like even in her rotund ursine form. It's inevitable that Elinor will have to return to human form at some point, but her bear form is so much more memorable. It's the beast in her that's really the beauty.