‘Brave’ is beary fun but a bit scary

Before I discovered hair mousse and that allowing someone to thin my hair with a razor guaranteed split ends, my hair was a tumbleweed of black frizz and occasional curls at the wind’s mercy. Taming my hair was a task not easily mastered and living coastal meant all attempts to straighten were futile.

My bad hair days happen less frequently but seeing the red tangle of Disney’s newest princess Merida (Kelly Macdonald) in the magical Pixar 3D computer animation, “Brave,” sent me back to those days. I can easily relate to Merida, her hair and the willfulness expressed in her actions and by her hair although having seen the dreadful red wigs that are part of the merchandising campaign did give me pause.

In this tale, there is magic, but no real malevolence. There’s no great evil, except of the beary sort. As the first Pixar film with a female protagonist, it was supposed to be directed by a woman, Brenda Chapman who is credited with the story. She was replaced by Mark Andrews and Steve Purcell.

As you can imagine, that means Andrew, Purcell and Chapman along with Irene Mecchi are credited with writing the screenplay. What might have ended up as a rough patchwork is instead a straightforward fairy tale.

Merida is the eldest child of Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson) and King Fergus (Billy Connolly) of the kingdom of DunBroch. Fergus is a huge good-nature guy’s guy who lost his left leg when he was attacked by a legendary bear called Mor’du. Queen Elinor is the keeper of propriety, trying to teach her daughter the ways of the court and how to be a lady which is a heavy burden for Merida who would rather be riding her large black draft horse, Angus and shooting arrows off his back. Merida has wee triplet brothers, all red-haired like her but twice as willful and even harder to handle.

As in many feudal and tribal cultures, the peace is kept by intermarriage.   The four clans gather at Dunbroch for compete for Merida’s hand. Lords Macintosh (Craig Ferguson), MacGuffin (Kevin McKidd) and Dingwall (Robbie Coltrane) introduce their sons–none of whom are impressive. Choosing archery as the determining event, Merida outshoots all of her suitors and this break with tradition along with her battle with her constraining garments, causes a face down with her mother.

Both lose their tempers. Merida destroys a tapestry portrait of her family and her mother throws Merida’s bow into the fire. Elinor immediately regrets her action and retrieves the bow, but Merida runs away from the castle riding Angus wildly into the forest. But Angus is unwilling, at first, to enter circle marked by ancient stones. From there Merida sees and follows blue fairies who take her to the house of a wood-working witch (Julie Walters) with a bear obsession as seen in her carvings.

Merida agrees to buy some of the carvings and a spell to change her mother so that her own fate will be changed. Taking a magical cake back to the castle and after one bite Elinor becomes ill. As the clans begin to get rowdy, Merida helps Elinor to her room where she becomes increasingly ill until she transforms into a bear.

Yet this is a sleek beautiful bear who doesn’t, at first, know she’s a bear and is concerned about human things, like roaming around nude because she grew so big her dress was split. She so big she doesn’t know where her bum ends. Much of the physical comedy is seeing a bear act queenly and then surprised when her very beariness causes havoc.

As they both rush back, bearly escaping the clansmen who seeks to protect them from wild bears, they find the witch has left them a message. There a way to break the spell according to a riddle, but it must be done within two days or the transformation become permanent.

Having set the action in the 10th century, there aren’t a lot of modern references. The movie is dedicated to Steve Jobs (Macintosh). MacGuffin is a plot device and a movie term related to the late British director Alfred Hitchcock. Dingwall is the name of Scottish place near Inverness as well as a brand name for custom electric guitars. There’s also a cute reference to voicemail. As with all Pixar films, John Ratzenberger’s voice is featured, her as Gordon the guard.

The witch might remind you of Hayao Miyazaki’s old woman Yubaba or her twin Zeniba in the 2001 movie “Spirited Away” 千と千尋の神隠し Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi). Like that Japanese feature length animation, the story of “Brave” is about how a young girl learns to value her family and how she’s forced to work hard in order to earn their transformation back into human form. In “Spirited Away” the girl’s family were all transformed into pigs and threatened with slaughter. In “Brave,” Merida’s mother is transforming into a bear and her father and fearful clansmen are bear-slayers.

“Brave” shows beautiful expansive scenery and most of the action is rooted in reality. Much of the comedy comes from the rascally triplets as well as the bear who acts human. As time goes by, bear Elinor becomes more bear-like and the attention to detail in the mannerisms of the bear are outstanding as are the nuanced animation the mane, tail and body movement of Angus. Unlike many Disney features, Merida doesn’t break into song (although the film is deeply enriched by Patrick Doyle’s score which uses traditional Scottish instruments) and there’s no wise-cracking jive-talking smaller animal friend as in “Mulan” or cute little companion as in “Tangled.”

Although there a bit of hair-centricness in “Brave,” the two princesses, Merida for “Brave” and Rapunzel for “Tangled,” couldn’t be more different. Rapunzel is giddy and apprehensive at being out into the world and she’s aided and saved by the man who will become her prince, Eugene “Flynn Rider” Fitzherbert. While there are princes, they are mostly comic relief in the movie and none fulfill the role of romantic interest/prince. Merida is more independent and stubborn than Rapunzel. Where Rapunzel learned courage, Merida learns humility.

In “Tangled,” the horse Maximus plays a much bigger role than Brave’s Angus. Angus is more like a real horse just as Dug in Pixar’s 2009 “Up” was more like a real dog (at least a golden retriever). Maximus wavered between being a dog and a thinking horse or anthropomorphized horse that couldn’t speak human  language.

One caveat is the final scenes of “Brave” where there’s a clash between bears and Mor’du returns, might be too intense for smaller children. One father who attended the special El Capitan all media screening was carrying out his young daughter who looks like she had been crying. He explained that she was so upset they were passing up the “Highland Games” organized as entertainment post-screening. If you’ve read Grimms’ Fairy Tales, you’ll know the scare-factor is a more traditional approach than the classic Disney storytelling tradition.

“Brave” is an enjoyable tale that seeks to empower and inspire girls and boys to be brave and find their own fate. This is a different (and better) kind of  bodice-ripping tale that might have helped me during my endless bad hair days of youth.

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