As an entertainment company, Disney has never been short of stature in a few key areas. Most notably, they’ve always been good at selling fantastical stories and moving movie-sized boxes of merchandise in their wake. They built an entire theme park around their properties, constantly move home video releases in and out of a metaphorical vault, and they always seem to come up with stories that serve two purposes: capture the adoration of youth and then get them to convince their parents to buy them things to fuel those fires of love. And for years, fairy tales and princess stories have been their bread and butter.
Conversely, the folks at Pixar have always marched to a slightly different beat. They’ve always simply made stories they thought were fun, not that they necessarily thought we’d buy. Movies about talking toys, runaway fish, and main characters who can’t even talk. For Pixar (even though they became an official part of Disney in 2006 and had a working relationship with the Mouse House well before that), they’ve never made anything that felt like a Disney movie. That is, until their latest film, Brave.
For better or worse, a product of princess story perception or real influence, Brave is a Disney movie at heart. And depending upon who you ask, it’s either a major misstep for Pixar or an evolutionary one for its parent company.
Upon taking in Brave – the story of fiery redheaded Scottish Princess Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald), an adventurous, arrow-slinging lass who resists her mother’s will to make her a proper lady at every turn – it’s hard not fall into league with those who’d say that we’re bearing witness to the evolution of the Disney Princess story. There are a lot of classic themes at work here. Merida doesn’t want to follow the path set before her by years of tradition, so she goes off into a magical forest and consults with a wood-carving witch who gives her a spell to change her fate. But as these stories usually go, Merida’s wish comes with a potentially grave fate for those who love her most. Amidst all the action, we are treated to inspirational scene-themed music and lyrics and bouts of supporting character humor. Never too dark, and with laughs strategically placed every few moments to keep the kids interested, Brave walks an uncanny path that many Princess stories have walked before. It’s a path not too dissimilar to the one John Lasseter and the folks at Disney Animation walked with Tangled not even two years ago. Or the one Disney walked in 1989 with The Little Mermaid (another parentally conflicted redhead).
But there’s something more beautiful at work here than anything we’re going to see from any other animation house. As they always do, Pixar gets the details right. The sweeping landscapes are gorgeous. The characters are developed fully and, even though some of them are cut from familiar cloth, their actions and their lack of stale dialogue make them feel fresh as their stories unfold on-screen. Even Merida’s blazing red curls are so meticulously animated that even through the darkened effect of 3D, they are a marvel to behold. Pixar has always been about these details. From the incredible sound design of Wall-E to the calculation of the exact number of balloons that it would take to lift Carl Fredricksen’s house off the ground in Up. Brave has that same verve. That same wonderful, inimitable passion for the little things. Through these little things — the rich and detailed forests of DunBroch, the silly relief of Merida’s three mischievous brothers, and the layers of human realism that emanates from each character, little or small — Brave comes alive in a way that Disney hasn’t done in a long time.
From the tiniest blade of grass to simple execution of energetic pacing that makes a 100-minute movie into a brisk, exciting experience, there’s no denying that this is a quintessential Pixar film. It just takes a little while to remind the audience of that fact, especially when the audience is forced to sit through several commercials about Disney vacations to Scotland and Brave video game tie-ins. For some, it may come as quickly as half way through La Luna – the short paired with Brave and perhaps one of the single most adorable things Pixar has ever created. For others it may take some time.
In the end, the sum total of how much you’ll enjoy Brave may come down to how much you hold it against Pixar that they’re telling a story that feels very Disney. If you can forgive them the that fact and see that they started, as they always do, with a character and a relationship – in this case, a mother-daughter pair equal in their own strength of will – then you may just realize that what Pixar has done isn’t simply to make something that fits into a Disney formula, it’s to take said formula and improve upon it.
If you can do that, you may walk away from Brave as I did, totally in love with the experience. Filled with the nostalgic twinge of something from your childhood, those great Disney fairy tales, but with a little extra. With an attention to the little things that makes Brave not just Pixar’s first Disney movie, but simply another great Pixar movie.