Director: Mark Andrews, Brenda Chapman, Steve Purcell
Cast: Kelly Macdonald, Billy Connolly, Emma Thompson
Watch Brave online in the UK: Disney Life / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / TalkTalk TV / iTunes / Rakuten TV / Google Play
“A lady does not place her weapon on the table.”
That’s Queen Elinor (Thompson) speaking to Princess Merida (Macdonald), a wild child who wants to change her fate from one of fancy dresses, formal duties and fake smiles. Where most princesses practice cross-stitch, Merida rides through the forest. In place of a lute, she wields a bow and arrow. She’s closer to Link from The Legend of Zelda than a Disney Princess. And to top her off? An untrained barnet of bright red hair.
What sets Merida apart from most animated heroes, Pixar included? One, she’s a girl. Two, she’s ginger. But three, and most importantly, she doesn’t have a sidekick.
Merida spends all day with her horse. But does it talk? Never. Half an hour later, fleeing from a horde of male suitors, she winds up at a witch’s cottage, a decision that introduces another animal to the story: a bear. It doesn’t talk either.
What follows is a study in miscommunication. Merida and the sometimes-kind-sometimes-lethal beast try to understand each other. It groans, she shrugs, furniture gets broken. So the pair bond over fishing in the lake. In the same way, she struggles with her mum at home, each of the women too stubborn to listen to each other between fights.
It’s a surprisingly intimate thing to focus on in a big summer kids film. But that’s not to say Brave isn’t spectacular to look at: the expansive Scottish landscape, full of brown trees and green moss, is gorgeous – and after The Descent, Dog Soldiers and NEDs, a much-needed shot in the arm for the country’s tourist industry – while Merida’s hair has more life in one follicle than the entire cast of Happy Feet 2 (kudos to Pixar for discovering the digital equivalent of Herbal Essences).
There’s gung-ho action, too, provided by Billy Connolly’s loveable brute of a father, Fergus. A king with a grudge against the fearsome bear for biting off his leg, he’s a boisterous drunkard of a man. Merida’s little brothers, meanwhile, bring the laughs, scampering about like little hairy monsters, stealing cakes and smashing pots all over the castle. As for Disney’s latest princess, even with a clunky voiceover narration, Macdonald’s Merida sings off the screen, as feisty and fully-fledged as a lass can be.
The result is something that’s not as immediately jaw-dropping as, say, The Incredibles, but despite some gags falling flat, it’s properly enchanting stuff. Partly because it’s a new direction for Pixar – its magical sprites owe a debt to Ghibli’s female-led fantasy, while the fairytale visuals hark back to that lovely Celtic cartoon The Secret of Kells – and partly because it still feels like classic Disney.
Is it the fact that even the story’s sinister hag is given a silly side by a barmy Julie Walters? Or that one of the three directors is The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast writer Brenda Chapman? Both of them help. But what makes Brave special is that for all its lush woodlands and loud bangs, at its heart it’s simply a tale of two people trying to have a conversation.
It’s no mistake that the opening sees Thompson’s Queen hunting down her daughter in a game of hide and seek: when it comes to characters and emotion, Brave plonks its weapons on the table right from the start. And neither of them are a talking horse.