I've been trying to think of other Disney Fairy Stories that center around the relationship between a daughter and her mother. I have not been successful. Often the mother-figure is an evil step-mother ala Cinderella and Snow White. Often the primary parental relationship is between daughters and their fathers like Ariel and Belle. And even when the mother is present, like The Princess and the Frog, that took a back seat to the romance/adventure.
Brave is different in this regard and for that alone it has a unique place in the Disney/Pixar pantheon.
Brave is the story of Merrida, a willfull tomboy of a Scotish lass in a medeval kingdom. She is the princess to King Fergus, the burly leader of uneasily allied clans.
Fergus dotes on Merrida and indulges her interests, much to the dismay of her mother, Queen Elinor, who tries to teach her daughter the grace and manners of royalty. Tensions between mother and daughter become worse when it comes time for a husband to be picked for the princess from one of the 3 other clans. Merrida can only see the loss of her freedom and Elinor can only see the necessities of peace and duty. After a terrible fight, Merrida flees into the woods and meets a witch to grant her a spell to change her fate. I cannot talk about much more of the plot without giving away the twists and turns.
The film is stunningly beautiful, as are all Pixar movies. Merrida's hair alone has a flow and texture that is almost tangible. I was also very much pleased with the themes presented. Elinor could have easily be charicatured as the “overbearing mother” who must learn to let go. But the queen is presented as very reasonable and loving. We feel her frustration and sympathize with her strained relationship with her daughter. And this is not done at the expense of Merrida either, who is flawed and a bit selfish, but yearns for the self-determination we all desire. The story is ultimately about Merrida's journey. By making a deal with the witch, she hurts the people she loves and must atone for that sin.
In that sense, the movie has some wonderfully Catholic themes of reconciliation and forgiveness. In addition, the role of the motherhood is upheld. While Elinor goes through a transformation of character, so does Merrida so that they both recognize the value they have in each other.
There are 2 issues I have with this movie. The first is that it is too short. I am not refering to the number of minutes per se. But the story feels condensed so that there is very little breathing room. Instead of the standard 3 days to deal with the witch's magic, they are reduced to a day and a half. Just when I thought some of the characters could be explored with more depth, we were hurling towards the conlcusion. Brevity is not a bad thing, but it leads to the second problem. The supporting characters were very much under utilized. Other Pixar fare like Toy Story and A Bug's Life, gave excellent breath and depth to the supporting cast. Brave seems to trade this for quirkiness. I cannot remember the names of Merrida's three suitors, but I can pick them out as the incoherent one, the vain one, and the moron. It was as if the writers did not want to complicate the mother/daughter story by adding any characters to that journey. I understand wanting to maintain the integrity of that relationship, but it pushes the other characters to the perifery, so that we do not get to enjoy them as much.
Having said that, it was still quite moving. Pixar has an interesting problem in that the quality of their products have always been excelent (thought I have not seen Cars 2). Because of this, all of their movies are held to an incredibly high standard. On that scale, Brave is not the best of their films, nor is it their worst. But for my money, it is better than most movies that have come out this year.