Overall Rating: 8.0
This movie didn't aim high, but it hit its mark.
(Spoilers beneath the cut!)
A (NOT!)-Scottish medieval kingdom is thrown into chaos when maverick Princess Merida refuses to go along with the tradition of a contest to divine which of three suitors will be her husband. She thinks she's not ready to give up her freedom and take on the responsibilities of ruling a kingdom, preferring those moments when she can be free to explore the wild. Her mother is consumed by the desire to see her daughter succeed in the same way that she did, leading to a tattered bond familiar to most parents of teenagers. Eventually, Merida shows up all of the potential suitors by besting each of them in archery and proclaiming that, as the first born from her own clan, she can claim her own hand in marriage, leading to a huge fight that causes the angry Queen Elinor to throw her beloved bow in the fire. Furious, Merida runs her sword through the family tapestry and then bolts for the woods.
While there, she is led by something called a willow wisp to the cottage of a witch who offers her a potion that will "change her fate." What she doesn't know is that she only has two days once her mother eats the potion to undo the spell by mending the bond between them. Unfortunately, the spell works perfectly - turning her mother into a bear. The same large and imposing creature that took her father's leg when she was a child. They go through a spectacular effort to get Elinor out of the castle while pursued by the king and his men and then spend a day learning to communicate with each other in the forest. While Merida teaches her mother to fish for salmon, the willow wisps intercede again, leading them to the ruins of the old kingdom where they encounter Mardu - the unfortunate recipient of a similar smell created by the same witch (he asked for the strength of ten men so he could rule his kingdom and got locked in his evil bear body). From this encounter, Merida learns that she cannot think only of herself and her desires. After all, Mardu was the result of a prince making the same mistake.
They return to the castle hoping to repair the family tapestry but need a diversion so that they can sneak back into the bed chambers and retrieve it. Merida is about to offer herself to one of her suitors but her mother, hiding as a bear statue, has a change of heart and encourages her daughter to change the law, that future princes and princesses should choose for themselves whom they might love and in their own time. Naturally, all three of Merida's suitors are eager to claim their own freedom as well. Unfortunately, Fergus (the king) discovers at just the wrong moment that his wife is missing and finds her (in bear form) in Merida's room. He goes on a mad quest to avenge his wife's death on the bear's hide and they are chased out into the forest - leading to a final confrontation with Mardu near the ruins of his former castle. Where at a previous battle, Elinor chose to flee, this time, to defend her daughter, she battles Mardu tooth and claw and vanquishes him under the weight of a stone pillar. Just in time for the second sunrise that would make the spell permanent. Merida throws the repaired tapestry over her mother and cries over what she fears will be the loss of her mother, saying she loves her. Thankfully, those final words lift the spell and all ends well.
The critical response to this movie is, IMHO, a little too harsh (presently it's getting about a 72% fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes) if only because it's being compared to every other Pixar effort and they're finding it a bit wanting for scale and emotional resonance. And...if my scale were 0-10 with the worst Pixar movie in the 0 slot and the best at 10, this one would probably get a 3. But that doesn't mean it's a bad movie. The critics are correct to point out that Brave aims a little lower than most Pixar movies, preferring to keep the story very simple and predictable (you know within the first ten minutes what's going to happen from beginning to end...you're just waiting to see what it will look like) and to focus on the interpersonal relationships of the characters and on the artistry of the presentation. Rather than being the epic quest we may have been hoping for when we saw the trailers, this turns out to be no bigger than, say, Cinderella - "merely" a heartwarming and "nice" movie about a family learning to accept that its members may have different points of view. In fact, Merida is pretty much your standard late 90s Disney princess (tm). With the important distinction that she does NOT fall in love with some handsome prince and get married in the final scene. So...yes...this one fails to resound as clearly as Toy Story 3 or The Incredibles. But it's not trying to be that kind of movie.
Instead, we get some truly hilarious random humor - some from the beautiful animation (like the random sheep that flies through the shot during a fight between the three clans competing for Merida's hand in marriage or the arrival of all three of Merida's brothers, naked as jaybirds, at the conclusion), some from the well-worn, but therefore well-developed character archetypes. The Scottish cultural twist on the story feels honey-smooth and is rendered with gorgeous and loving animation that compares favorably to every classic Pixar and Disney film. My favorite part was Elinor, as a bear, trying to eat daintily out in the woods and picking the poison berries, turning her nose up at salmon until she tries it, looking incompetent trying to hunt them, etc. This movie isn't shooting high, so it has some time to slow down and let us simply enjoy a tableau like that. It's light and fun and pleasing to look at. And there's nothing wrong with that.
The bottom line...it made me feel good to watch it...just because it isn't serious and moving like "Up" or wild and adventurous like "Finding Nemo" doesn't mean it's not a good solid movie.
As noted, the plot is a bit cliche and the movie isn't going for epic storytelling by any means. But the humor works well, the characters are well-developed.
Production Values: 9.0
Luxurious use of color will make this movie one you can see over and over again just because you like how it looks. Seriously, it's a masterpiece of children's art.
Voice Acting: 8.5
The witch (as done by Julie Walters) and the three male suitors for Merida were over the top and kind of off-putting, IMHO. But Kelly Macdonald and Emma Thompson carried this movie...their voice work was superb.
Like most Pixar movies, this one is fun for the kids, but also trying to speak to the parents, all of whom have kids who have either passed the puberty wall or are about to. We all want what's best for our children, but we have to remember that they're not going to be identical to us...and that they have to find their own paths. What I like about this movie is that it doesn't just require Elinor to see it from Merida's point of view, but also the other way around. That is what is really needed to get through those terrible teen years with your familial bonds in one piece.