MOVIE REVIEW: Brave

(Image: www.imdb.com)

BRAVE-- 4 STARS

Two years ago, during the infancy of my fledgling website, I waxed poetically about the notion of "perfection" when I reviewed the absolute instant treasure of Toy Story 3 and talked about the impeccable track record of Pixar Animation Studios.  Even then, Pixar already had a stellar reputation for making extremely original tales and well-crafted films that were bigger than just being "child fare."  They were "events" and high quality compared to the computer-animated wannabes around it.  Consecutive years of major Oscar nominations bestowed upon RatatouilleWall-E, Up, and Toy Story 3, only raised the bar of expectations higher for quality.  In a way, the lofty standards of anything less than perfect became not good enough when it came to Pixar.

Last year, Pixar hit a true low with the dismal critical praise for Cars 2, scoring just 38% approval at Rotten Tomatoes.  Audiences only noticed a little and the popular Lightning McQueen brand still did great at the box office to the tune of over $550 million worldwide (though, that's a comparatively far cry from the $1 billion-plus earned by Toy Story 3).  Personally, I thought Cars 2 was just fine and wasn't designed to gun for the Oscars that the last four Pixar movies earned before it.

Even so, Pixar had to wipe some egg off its face and re-prove themselves with their 2012 feature Brave, opening this weekend.  Brave needed to wash the Allinol out of our mouths and smell as good as the French cooking as Gasteau's.  According to the big wig critics so far, Brave is trending a solid 74% on Rotten Tomatoes.  That really beats Cars 2, but is far from the 90%+ that ten Pixar films of 13 have scored.

I think Brave is worthy enough to join Pixar's resume of near-perfection.  It may not be 5-star elite, but "very, very good" is still acceptable to sit at the same dinner table with those decorated movies I mentioned before.  Brave is an excellent collection of Pixar firsts.  Brave is the studio's first female protagonist and first princess, but a far different one, as you will see, than the lexicon of beauties we know and adore in the doll aisle at the toy store.  This film is also their first original fairy tale and first period piece, set within a stunning Scottish-Celtic world of rocky greens and tartan patterns.  All together, the components combine for a rich and entertaining film experience for kids and adults.

The film takes place in the fictional Scottish kingdom of DunBroch where the burly King Fergus (voiced by Billy Connolly) is the king of four united clans., husband to the regal queen Elinor (voiced by Emma Thompson), and father of Princess Merida (voiced by Kelly MacDonald) and a whirling dervish of redheaded triplet sons.  Merida is a spirited and headstrong tomboy who has gravitated to the warrior ways of her father, especially after Fergus lost his leg in a non-coincidental (as you will see) bear attack, than to the regal preparation and lady etiquette of her mother. That friction boils over when it is announced that Merida is to be betrothed to the winning first-born son of the neighboring three clans (led by the talents of Robbie Coltrane, Craig Ferguson, and Kevin McKidd).

In a fit of childish impetuousness, Merida refuses the betrothal, rejects her mother, humiliates the other clans, and runs away on her trusty steed.  While in the forest, she encounters the fabled "will o' the wisps," ghostly lights of magic, that lead her to the country cottage of a witch (voiced by Julie Walters) posing as a woodworker.  Convinced the witch can cast a spell to change her fate, Merida's stubborn pride sets events in motion that could cost her her family, her safety, and her kingdom.  From here, I cannot give away any more of the fairy tale.

Brave is a fantastically empowering movie for mothers and daughters.  Many daughters, young and old, can relate to this kind of story about the plans and expectations that their mothers have for them that differ from their own interests.  The story is a bold one and devoid of cheese and syrup that can sometimes come with Disney's movies.  Merida is a princess you can really root for, not one that gets by on her looks or charm, and Elinor is a shining mother figure without a whiff of unnecessary evil stereotype.  

Brave might not pack the emotional wallop of Up or Toy Story 3, but its weight is admirably strong.  With its grounded morals, I'll go ahead and deem it required viewing for those princess-obsessed girls out there and their mothers.  Like all of Pixar's films, Brave looks and sounds absolutely amazing.  With every movie, the studio improves upon its unmatched animation prowess, 3D design (though the movie is not essential to see in 3D), and visual design of endlessly detailed settings.  The movie is so gorgeous with a fictional Scotland that a few travel agents might just see their business bump up soon.  The lush musical score from Scottish composer Patrick Doyle (Thor, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Great Expectations) is properly flavored by native instruments and backed by two great original songs from vocalist Julie Fowlis.  The entire presentation takes you to another place and that's what a good fairy tale should do.

SIDENOTE:  The animated short before the film, the whimsical La Luna from Italian native and Pixar storyboard artist Enrico Casarosa, is nothing short of beautiful simplicity and imagination. Pixar easter egg hunters, be on your toes. See if you can spot the Toy Story Pizza Planet truck with your eyes and the good luck charm cameo of John Ratzenberger with your ears.

LESSON #1: LEGENDS ARE LESSONS THAT RING WITH TRUTH-- Many Disney fairy tales neatly and tidily package their morals in powerful or memorable quotes ("hakuna matata") and Brave does the same.  This first lesson is a repeated quote from a pair of characters.  Though "legends" become content for tall tales and folklore, their morals and lessons are rooted in identifiable and pertinent truth.

LESSON #2: THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN MOTHERS AND DAUGHTERS-- The strained relationship between mother Elinor and daughter Merida is central to the plot of Brave.  As any woman can tell you, this relationship is like no other.  No matter the dissension that comes and goes, there is an unbreakable bond and connection and Brave conveys this very well.

LESSON #3: THE DEFINITION OF "BRAVE"-- In a movie titled Brave, you're bound to get more than a few examples of courage and bravery.  There's bravery in the face of fear and bravery to stand up for what you believe in.  Sure enough, there's also bravery in admitting your wrong, bravery to face change and accept it, and bravery to say what needs to be said, which leads me to my next lesson.

LESSON #4: PUTTING ASIDE PRIDE IN ADMITTING ONE'S FAULT-- Pride is that sin and trait that gets all of us in a lot of trouble.  It causes us to say the wrong things, carry the wrong torches, and not see our obvious mistakes.  There is a great relief, comfort, and fulfillment in putting the wrongful pride aside in admitting one's fault.  It's the right thing to do and you will be glad you did it.

LESSON #5: THE CONNECTION BETWEEN DESTINY AND FATE-- Destiny and fate are separate things, but inevitably connected.  As much as Merida sought to change her fate, destiny steered her to the proper path.  As Brave paraphrases it, fate rests in our hearts and is of our own design, while destiny is what awaits you in the world and path before you.