Wednesday, July 4, 2012

A Wish for Change Becomes a Curse that Destroys in Pixar’s Brave



When it comes to animated entertainment, Pixar ranks next to Hayao Miyazaki as one of my go-to sources for quality movies. Both provide engaging stories that are told through breathtaking animation, and both are willing to push themselves in new directions while at the same time remaining faithful to a set of recurring themes.

With its latest title Brave, Pixar stakes out new territory to add to its expanding roster of unique characters and gorgeous settings. Indeed, Brave is unique in that it is the first Pixar movie with a female main character and the first Pixar movie that's a period piece--in this case, pre-medieval Scotland. Yet in spite of these differences, Brave remains grounded in one of Pixar's recurring themes: the importance of maintaining ties with family and friends during times of change, particularly changes that are sudden and unexpected. Read on for my complete review.

Brave is about Princess Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald) as she defies the custom of arranged marriage and the wishes of her mother Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson) in order to determine her own future. Her struggles eventually lead her to an opportunity that allows her to make one wish that will change her fate, but the wish degenerates into a curse that could destroy both her family and her parents' kingdom. Merida must use her skills and her determination to undo the curse before it becomes permanent.


When reading other reviews and comments about Brave, I've noticed that some critics have a difficult time reconciling this film with the kinds of film with which Pixar is often associated. After all, most of Pixar's signature films (Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, the Toy Story trilogy, etc.) are known for bright colors and whimsical stories that are rooted in American pop culture. In contrast, Brave is saturated with dark earth tones and is filled with visual and musical nods to the Scottish landscape culture, both pre-medieval and modern. There are plenty of things in Brave that will remind audiences that they are watching a modern movie, but the animators always keep the Scottish roots of the characters and setting close at hand. Overall, Brave is closer to Pixar's more unorthodox films such as Ratatouille and Up than its more popular, more overtly kid-friendly titles.

By telling a fairy tale that centers on a princess, Brave may appear to be wandering into Disney territory but it never does. The curse that's unwittingly invoked by Merida bears some similarities to the curse in Disney's Beauty and the Beast and Brother Bear, but it has its own logic that echoes the distinct personalities of its characters and their situation. As I said earlier, unity during times of change is an important theme in Brave, both within Merida's own family and among the various clans that rule Scotland, and the curse that ties the story together between past, present and future is different from the curses seen in previous Disney cartoons.

As a youthful spirit, Merida herself is the catalyst of change: She defies the will of her mother by opting instead for pursuits of a more outgoing nature, and she defies the unity of the clans by challenging the tradition of arranged marriage between ruling families. (How Merida goes about challenging the arranged marriage rule through its own wording is pretty clever.) Yet when she accidentally unleashes the curse, Merida must channel her rebellious spirit into keeping her family together under unusual circumstances and ensuring that the peace between clans remains intact. Merida matures during the course of the movie, learning the importance of maintaining balance between tradition with change, stability with progress. Even though she is never swept off of her feet by a pre-arranged Prince Charming, Merida doesn't rule out the possibilities of romance, marriage and children later on in her life--she just wants those things on her terms and no one else's.


Serving as narrative counterweights to Merida are her mother Elinor and the curse itself, which began was a wish for self-determination. Elinor represents tradition, and how her relationship changes with Merida is a portrayal of sorts of how reconciliation can occur between the familiar past and unknown future through mutual understanding and respect. If anything, this maturing and mutually beneficial relationship sets Brave apart from other princess-centric fairy tales, where the mother is either completely absent or is replaced by an evil stepmother figure. The wish/curse represents the difference between change that benefits everyone (the wish) and change that only benefits the individual (the curse). During the film, we see how a previous wish also devolved into a curse and how it tore a family and in turn a kingdom apart because of its intent to secure the power of an individual at the expense of others; thus, it's Merida's quest and path to maturity to learn from the past to ensure that her wish-turned-curse for self-determination doesn't become something that tears her family and the clans apart forever.

(That said, I must be a horror fan: There are times in Brave when the relationship between Merida and her cursed mother reminded me of the relationship between Helene Delambre (Patricia Owens) and her disfigured, deteriorating husband in the original version of The Fly.)

There is a lot going on in Brave, and it keeps the story running at a smooth pace without sacrificing character development and ignoring key plot details and themes. It may not be your typical Pixar film, but the fact that it isn't a typical fairy tale means that it's another major accomplishment in Pixar's ever-growing list of innovations.




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