Everyone who knows me, knows I’m a sucker for redheads.  I don’t know why or how it all started, though I’m inclined to blame Molly Ringwald and John Hughes.

So when I first saw the trailer for Brave, I knew I’d have to give it a shot.  Indepndent redhead (albeit a digital one), Scottish highlands and it’s Pixar.  What’s not to love?  And yet, the movie still surprised me for one of the takeaway teaching moments it left me with.

Brave follows the story of Princess Merida (Kelly Macdonald).  The firstborn child of Fergus (Billy Connolly) and Elinor (Emma Thompson), Merida is constantly at odds with her mother over the course her life would take.  Merida is stubborn, aggressive and adventurous, traits she shares with daddy Fergus.  This attitude fuels the conflict with Elinor, who wants Merida to emulate Elinor’s behavior as a “proper lady”.

Elinor’s interest in reigning Merida’s rambunctious side is in anticipation of the destiny she knows awaits Merida.  As the Princess of the clans of Scotland, Merida is bound to be betrothed to the son of one of the other clan leaders (much to Merida’s chagrin).  The competition for Merida’s hand goes sideways when Merida tries to exploit a loophole in the rules to win her independence outright.

This leads to greater problems, and an even fiercer conflict with Elinor.  Merida flees the castle and finds herself lost in the woods.  She stumbles upon the cottage of a witch who gives her a potion that is promised to change Merida’s mother and by extension Merida’s fate.  But as is always the case in these kinds of fairy tales, Merida should be careful for what she wishes for as the change is far from what she anticipated.  She and Elinor find themselves challenged to find a way to undo the witch’s spell before the changes become permanent and Merida loses her mom forever.

In almost every way, I feel like visually this may be Pixar’s richest film ever made.  The attention to detail in how they depicted the Scottish highlands is breathtaking.  The only film they’ve done that I feel comes close to equally capturing its environment may be Finding Nemo.  If the tourism board of Scotland licensed the footage to advertise the country, they could do a hell of a lot worse for their money.  And I have to ask if it’s me, or is there more than a hint of Miyazaki influence in the way the Will o’ the Wisps are depicted?   Reminds me so much of the Kodama in Princess Mononoke.

And on certain levels that’s great because the character development/depth is a bit lacking at times.  I heart Bill Connolly and as a voice actor he’s got so much personality I think it would be hard to reign him in.  Here, though, it feels like he doesn’t do a lot more than chuckle amusingly at Merida’s antics or yell menacingly at perceived threats.  There’s a hysterical exchange with him and Elinor as he tries to help Elinor figure out how to communicate with Merida.  He role plays Merida for Elinor, and it’s so absurd you can’t help but crack up because it’s also so damn earnest.  And yet, it gets cut short by intercuts of Elinor and Merida having their own one-sided monologues.  I wanted a lot more from Fergus and it’s not there.

I suspect that part of that is due to the central theme of the movie, which is mother-daughter relationships and Merida’s struggle as an independent woman in a societal structure that tries to clamp down on that.  I can appreciate why those themes and the plot threads connected to that dominate the movie.  I just love Connolly so much as a comedic presence that I wanted more of him because of that.

In a similar vein, the three other clan lords are just there for some brief comic relief and I think that’s a missed opportunity.  Lord Dingwall (Robbie Coltrane), Lord MacGuffin (Kevin McKidd) and Lord MacIntosh (Craig Ferguson) could be prime examples of the misunderstanding or the male-dominated ideology that compels Elinor to to try and get Merida to conform to try and keep her safe.  I recognize that I’m getting way deep into the weeds here, trying to get more meta within a kids movie.  At the same time I think that’s one of the things that is absolutely brilliant in The Incredibles, and I know Pixar is capable of working that kind of meta-commentary in without taking away from the entertainment value.

But I digress…

Because it’s so central to the concept of the movie, the greatest focus on the acting here has to be on Macdonald and Thompson and daughter and mother.  In this, neither actress disappoints.  I’ve long had a crush on Emma Thompson, so it’s hard for me to be objective.  But I do sincerely wish she did more voice work in animated features.  It’s expressive, clear, articulate…even effecting the Scottish accent she needs for Elinor.

Macdonald is every bit her equal as Merida.  It still scrambles my brain a little to think of her as Carla Jean in No Country for Old Men because there’s no trace of her Scottish heritage in that role at all.  Here, she’s 100% spitfire and that’s as much credit to her as it is to the animators who bring Merida to life.  This is no shrinking violet Disney Princess, even in the moments when she has to concede some of her position to resolve the conflict.  My appreciation for Merida as a character runs pretty deep.

The resolution of the conflict between mother and daughter is something that I can’t really discuss without getting into spoiler territory.  I put the warning here, and advise if you don’t want to know more about the latter part of the movie you do a “Find” to jump down to SPOILER END to bypass it.

 

 

The potion from the witch transforms Elinor into a bear, and I’d actually heard about that before seeing the movie.  I thought this would be kind of juvenile given some of the bigger themes they’re tackling within the movie.  But the execution is what really sells me on the movie as a whole and turned me from thinking the movie was just “meh” to being upper tier of Pixar features overall.

Even though Emma Thompson has no speaking part in the latter half of the movie, it’s the way that the animators keep Elinor’s mannerisms active in the character of Mama Bear that sells me on the execution.  There is absolute absurdity in the way she tries to maintain her persona as a “proper lady” even in the face of this otherworldly transformation she’s undergone that absolutely killed me the whole way through.  When you have a gargantuan bear sitting up proper, crown on her head, trying to eat berries with a makeshift knife and fork crafted from twigs how can you not laugh?

And it also feels to me like this is when they actually do get a chance to do some meta-commentary within the theme and get it right.  If you’re going to buy into a world where a cake can transform you from Queen into a bear, then quite frankly all of the ins and outs of proper etiquette don’t do jack shit for you when you’re having to catch salmon in a stream to continue to exist.  It’s when everything that Merida is good at, everything that Elinor is chastising Merida for comes to the forefront as necessary and valuable.

And yet, when Merida has to help make the peace between the clans to advance their theory for how to restore Elinor…she doesn’t have to necessarily sublimate her wilder tendencies entirely.  It’s a ridiculous resolution, and one that feels a little too pat.  But I still give it a little credit in that at her core, Merida can still be her own person.  Maybe that’s giving the script too much credit, but it feels right to me.  Your mileage may vary.

 

SPOILER END

 

In the end, the movie as a whole is fun, engaging and beautiful to watch.  That by itself would be enough to recommend it, but I made some mental connections spinning off the movie that helped put my personal life more into frame.  If you’re not interested in my playing mind games with myself and movies you can stop reading here.

Redheads by stereotype are thought of as being more independent and assertive than the general population, a stereotype the movie plays with and builds on even as it does its own thing.  And it occurs to me that I as an individual have  (when it comes to dating and interacting with women) been rather passive in general.  I recognize that a lot of that has to do with the self-confidence/self-condemnation issues I’ve been working through over the last few years.

I think that traditional psychological analysis would say that part of why I’m drawn to that personality type (whether embodied in redheads or not) is because I find that attribute lacking in myself, which is unquestionably true.  I find it far easier to be aggressive in cards than I do in life.  And it occurs to me that there probably is absolutely 0 reason for someone who is a more assertive personality to be attracted to me when I’m in my more passive mode.  I mean, the adage “opposites attract” is true, but so is “birds of a feather flock together”.  And if I’m really trying to develop that characteristic more in my own life, it makes more sense to try and emulate that which I want, rather than the opposite, no?

In any case any movie that gives me food for thought in my own life, whether by accident or by design, is whole heartedly welcome.

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