A good, constructive mother-daughter relationship is hard to come by in film. They crop up here and there. Terms of Endearment comes to mind. But they just aren’t done that often. More common is the Carrie/Black Swan variety of horribly destructive relationships between mothers and daughters. So, in comes Pixar, producing the company’s first ever film centred on a female protagonist. Brave, conceived by Brenda Chapman and co-directed by Chapman and Mark Andrews, brings to the screen one of the most affecting mother-daughter relationships I’ve seen in quite some time.
Brave is a bit of a schizophrenic movie. It’s an uproarious slapstick comedy surrounding a very tender fairy tale about a mother and daughter coming to terms with each others’ views. Amazingly, the two tones work harmoniously almost all the time. (I’ll get to the “almost” a bit later.) Merida is a feisty Scottish princess who wants nothing more than to shoot arrows and climb cliffs. Her mother, Elinor, is Queen of the land, and particularly due to the boisterous nature of her husband, Fergus, she’s left to actually run the show. Part of that responsibility is teaching Merida to be a proper princess and to have her betrothed. Of course, Merida wants none of it. She just wants to live freely and take things easy. Classic conflict; a simple and effective set-up.
The tension over the plans for Merida’s betrothal leads to a big fight between mother and daughter and Merida dashes off into the woods. This is where magic really starts to creep into the film. There are the will-o’-the-wisps that lead Merida along. There’s a witch. There’s a magical cake. Merida comes back to the castle, one thing leads to another and Merida’s mother gets cast under a spell. It’s in this next section, where Merida and her mother must hide away in the woods, that the “almost” I talked about begins to creep in, but wait just a little bit longer for me to elaborate.
I’d like to return to the mixing tones of the film. Brave‘s comedic style is almost entirely slapstick. Other than the odd bit like a burp gag or an oddly modern reference, the film relies on clever animated goofs and pratfalls. This may sound like a huge turn-off, and for some it really might be. As a big fan of classic animation like the old Disney Silly Symphonies or the Warner Bros. Merry Melodies, I’m a sucker for an expressively animated pratfall. On this front, Brave delivers in spades. Merida’s three young brothers provide the biggest, most consistent laughs throughout, wordlessly causing mayhem all around the castle. Miraculously, the comedy, which is often very separated from the core mother-daughter storyline, meshes perfectly with that story’s seriousness. The tones compliment each other very well, particularly in the first act.
It’s the second act where things get a little less than perfect. First of all, the entrance of the witch I mentioned also brings those few oddly modern jokes. The jokes themselves are funny, but they feel out-of-place. That’s a small nitpick, though. The bigger issue comes with the spell cast on Elinor. I have theories on why it was handled this way, but suffice it to say, Elinor becomes a part of the slapstick humour. Once again, the gags themselves are quite funny, but they do undercut the emotional development between Elinor and Merida, even if only just a little.
This potentially significant flaw in the film really could have killed the film in its tracks. So many films start off well only to mess things up in the second act and never recover. Brave doesn’t fall into that trap, though. After a bit of stumbling in the woods (quite literally), the film finds a proper footing, once again finding the right balance between comedy and pathos. Once the third act hits, the film is firing on all cylinders. It all leads to a climactic ending and a beautiful, perfectly rendered, emotional scene between mother and daughter. Merida and Elinor learn to understand each other, and the ultimate, inevitable reconciliation scene had me seriously tearing up. There’s one particular shot, where a hand comes into frame, that just about killed me. You’ll know it when you see it.
So yeah, Brave did it for me. I laughed more than at any other movie I’ve seen in some time. I was gripped by the very simple but very tender relationship between a mother and daughter. I cried at the end. There were a couple of bumps along the way, but luckily the film got past them, pulling it together for a truly moving finale. Oh, I almost forgot, Kelly Macdonald, the voice of Merida, is great. I could listen to her wonderful Scottish accent all day.