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Web Feature Posted June 22, 2012

A Brave New Fairy Tale

By Jeffrey Overstreet (

Brave: Merida and her mother, Queen Elinor.A mother/daughter movie: Merida and her mother, Queen Elinor, clash in Brave. ©2012 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

Dear Moviegoer,

Please avoid reading reviews of Brave before you see it for yourself.

That sounds like strange advice from a critic, I know. But many who have reviewed Pixar’s new movie have revealed the film’s biggest and best surprises. Even the great Roger Ebert spells out most of the movie’s plot twists.


Perhaps they didn’t get the movie they were anticipating. Perhaps the marketing led them to expect something different. Pixar has marketed Brave as a story about a spirited young princess who talks back to society, charts her own course, takes on the boys at their own games, and shoots arrows with the precision of Robin Hood. It looks like an epic fantasy about a rebel with a cause.

But as per usual, Pixar’s marketing is a work of misdirection. They’re setting us up for that rare delight of being surprised at the movies.

Here’s a brief sketch of the setup, pretty much spoiler-free:

Somewhere in the enchanted Scottish Highlands of medieval times, King Fergus (with the fantastic voice of Billy Connolly) and Queen Elinor (voiced by Emma Thompson) have invited the leaders of three clans — the McIntoshes, the MacGuffins, and the Dingwalls — to their home. They want to find the best possible suitor for their daughter, in order to make a marriage that will sustain this fragile union of tribes.

But the spirited Princess Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald) wants nothing to do with any arranged marriage.

And it shows. In her finer moments, she’s impudent and grumpy; in her worst, she brashly disobeys. Reckless as her explosion of red hair, she’s more interested in showing off with her bow — a gift from her doting father — than forcing herself into the stifling corsets prescribed by her mother. She’d rather ride into the forest on Angus, her magnificent horse, than practice courtly manners while her triplet brothers run wild without consequences.

But when Merida disrespects her parents in front of the visitors, things go from bad to worse. In her rage of disobedience, she sets in motion events that threaten to destroy her family and jeopardize the peace of the kingdom.

Will she be brave enough to do the difficult thing, humble herself, and strive to repair the damage she’s done? Or will she insist on appeasing her own stubborn will?

That’s more than enough plot summary, don’t you think? Why say more? The pleasure is in seeing how it all plays out.

Instead of spoiling surprises, let’s focus on the film’s strengths (which are considerable) and its weaknesses (which are hard to ignore).

Having seen WALL-E and Toy Story 3, we’ve come to expect vivid, elaborately detailed animation from Pixar. Well, brace yourself. Brave raises the bar. It’s beautiful, beginning to end. Princess Merida’s red hair is a magnificent mess, but Merida’s mother is the animators’ finest achievement — she becomes a fantastically expressive and endearing character. And wait until you see the forest! You’ll swear that you can smell the grass, the mosses, the mist.

We’ve come to expect excitement, mystery, adventure, laughs, and suspense from Pixar — and we get all of those things. Perhaps we get less of them than we did in Up or Ratatouille or Toy Story 3. But this is Pixar telling a different kind of story, from a different tradition. They’ve served us lavish feasts. This is more like a hearty stew served in bread bowl. That doesn’t mean it isn’t a pleasure.

Brave: Merida and her horse, Angus.Merida and her horse, Angus, venture into a woods haunted by will-o’-the-wisps and a dangerous witch in Brave. ©2012 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

The influence of the Japanese filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki on Pixar’s storytellers has never been more obvious. The creator of My Neighbor Totoro and Spirited Away has been a champion of children’s stories with strong female characters, and here is Pixar’s first female-focused film. Mysterious will-o’-the-wisps that haunt the forest like feisty blue fireflies are reminiscent of the sprites that always lurk at the edges of Miyazaki’s movies. And the flora and fauna are so exquisitely realized that they almost steal the show. (Angus is a rare wonder — an animated horse who, unlike most Disney horses, looks and acts like a horse!)

Brave also recalls Miyazaki’s films in that there is no real villain. There are threats, but they’re dangers of the human heart and dangers of the wilderness; this is a story that finds resolution in something greater than a bad guy getting his comeuppance.

But Brave’s most remarkable distinction is what it asks us to consider.

Most American entertainment designed for young people, especially for young women, is about empowerment. We’ve been conditioned to expect a familiar message: “Follow your heart! You can do anything you set your mind to do. Let nothing stand between you and your dreams!” Thus, adults and authority figures are usually shown to be ignorant and oppressive, and family, tradition, social conventions, and religion are portrayed as the stuff of slavery.

No one seems to notice how such messages can encourage young hearts and minds toward self-centeredness and arrogance, making them vulnerable to the very dangers that such institutions were built to resist.

Brave is a rare and wonderful exception. It echoes Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, and Toy Story 2, suggesting that what feels at first like a fight for independence can instead be an arrogant charge into peril. Recalling the cautionary nature of traditional fairy tales, this story encourages children to think twice, and then again, before disregarding their parents’ wisdom and authority. Ultimately, it favors families that listen to one another and cooperate with each other’s best interests in mind.

Still, while Brave is admirable for dazzling visuals, excellent voice work, and honorable themes, some scenes work better than others. There’s a surprisingly implausible sequence in which Merida must create a diversion so somebody can sneak into her family’s castle — funny, but poorly executed. On matters of love and freedom, the movie turns downright preachy, failing the “show, don’t tell” test.

There’s musical trouble too — the film’s stirring score by Patrick Doyle is interrupted by bland pop anthems that will make longtime Disney fans cover their ears and sing “When You Wish Upon a Star.”

And where most Pixar movies build to a thrilling and satisfying finale, Brave’s climax feels more obligatory than awe-inspiring. Its high points come in quieter moments of humor and warmth.

Perhaps that’s because we’re working with a new team of storytellers — Mark Andrews, Steve Purcell, and Brenda Chapman — rather than the studio’s usual “dream team.” Perhaps it has something to do with the number of screenwriters (four), or with some mid-project leadership changes. We could speculate, but why bother?

Better to savor the rare pleasure of an unpredictable, visually enthralling fairy tale, a film that finds a successful studio refusing to repeat itself. With Brave, the people of Pixar show that they are not tired of reaching for new stars, blazing new trails, or striving to rekindle our sense of wonder at the movies. And best of all, they know that the stories we want are not necessarily the stories that we need.

Oh, one more thing: La Luna, the short film that precedes this feature film, is a keeper. Pixar’s short films are always fun, but where some are frantic and extreme, this one is enchanting in its simplicity and whimsy.

Read more reviews in the Response OnScreen archive.

Did you see Brave? And what do you think of how children and their parents are portrayed in today's films and TV shows?

Tell us what you thought in this moderated board. And see what others say.


Posted Monday, November 11, 2012, at 12:34 p.m.

i love it

Michael Hovey

Posted Sunday, October 28, 2012, at 2:51 p.m.

I loved everything about this movie, couldn't really find a thing wrong with it at all. The animation was gorgeous, the characters were either making me laugh till it hurt or welling up inside with emotion, the songs were lovely sounding like a cross between Enya and Sarah McLachlan, and the 3D was the best I've ever seen. For me Pixar hit it out of the park with this one making it their 7th straight masterpiece in a row.


Posted Friday, June 29, 2012, at 11:38 a.m.

My 18-year-old daughter came home from the movie late last night (really, early this morning), crawled under my blankets and whispered, "Momma, they look just like us. And she's a MommaBear, too!" Any movie that can do that has to be good. We're going together tomorrow!

J Ibanez

Posted Thursday, June 28, 2012, at 2:23 p.m.

Great review, Jeffrey! I loved how you pointed out the Miyazaki parallels. I caught the forest sprite similarities, but completely missed the others! To Connie: FWIW, I took my kids, ages 5 and 2. While there's an intense scene or two, they handled it fine with no recurring nightmares or frights. Every kid's different, though, and if they're spectacularly scared of mean bears (see opening scene and film trailer), then maybe reconsider. Otherwise, it's probably okay.

Sarabeth M.

Posted Tuesday, June 26, 2012, at 8:32 p.m.

I really appreciate what you have to say about movies, Jeffrey. As an older teenager myself, I thought Brave's depiction of a loving family rang true. It very accurately captured the tension between a young woman, trying to assert her own identity outside of her mother's personality and a mother looking out for her family's best interests. I've grown tired of trite depictions of family life -- films that show fathers as idiots or overprotective, mothers as dead or wicked, and siblings as annoying and unwanted are caricatures of a false reality. However, the best part was the chiastic structure of King Fergus' protection of Merida throughout the film. I saw the film twice in row -- once with friends, and once with family. The first time, I was a little disappointed with Pixar's performance, but coming back to it, I saw small details (the chiasmus, the relationships between Fergus and Eleanor, and Merida's love for her brothers), which took my breath away. Yes, the film had flaws, but it so perfectly captured a "normal" family in places. Brave may not be the most brilliant of Pixar films, but it seems the most grounded.

Jeffrey Overstreet

Posted Tuesday, June 26, 2012, at 3:24 p.m.

Thanks for all of the comments, everyone! Thanks especially to those recommending The Secret of Kells. That was my favorite film of 2009, and I agree that it's a greater work of art. Thanks also to Patrick for bringing up The Secret World of Arrietty, one of this year's most pleasant surprises. As for whether or not this film is suitable for young viewers ... it depends. If your children were frightened by the intense finale in Toy Story 3, or by the battle with Crom Curach in The Secret of Kells, well ... there are scenes here that are similarly intense and scary. But those scenes are fleeting. For the most part, I'd describe Brave as playful, whimsical, and occasionally intense ... only occasionally frightening. Maybe concerned parents should catch a matinee on their own and then decide whether their kids are up for it.


Posted Tuesday, June 26, 2012, at 3:03 p.m.

I definitely agree with Chad below, that Secret of Kells is a much richer experience if you are interested in folklore. It also haunts in a way I wish they could have captured in Brave (only because of its potential), but SK was notably darker. As musicians ourselves, and having a daughter who LOVES to sing (and connects with the music in her favorite movies more than the actual characters), I sincerely wish the music had been more original and memorable... I also wish they would have included even one scene with Merida singing something, a lullaby to her brothers...? Maybe an old folk song that told the tale her mother shared...? I felt that something for the young ones to latch onto musically would have added another layer of depth to the story, and helped reinforce the moral. That being said, we LOVED the movie. I agree, it was VERY refreshing to see loving, thoughtful, even indulgent parents who have great bonds with their children being presented. It gets really old, and sets a conflicting tone when our children are constantly trained to perceive parents and authority figures as ignorant or indifferent bigots and fools. Brave may have its obvious weak points, but the plot twist was certainly a welcome surprise, and neither me or my husband saw it coming. I really appreciated that. It was also visually stunning... and for a girl like me who loves trees and forests, it was an indulgent 93 minutes of eye candy.

Chad Ethridge

Posted Tuesday, June 26, at 10:05 a.m.

I walked away from this film with more dissatisfaction than I usually do from Pixar movies, but felt that it wasn't too terrible either. The music, as you mentioned was a noticeable disappointment. I also wished that the back-story received more attention and that the folklore tied in to the story better. The Secret of Kells is a much stronger animated film in this genre because of its attention to the back-story.

Scott Coulter

Posted Tuesday, June 26, 2012, at 9:26 a.m.

Keith Ling: You might still disagree with the storytelling technique, but at least don't overlook the point of the scene where the men listened attentively to the princess -- we had already seen them do this for the queen. The point of that scene was that Merida was using something she had learned (by observing) from her mother. Earlier in the film, Merida would presumably have been happy to say (along with countless other teenagers) "I've never learned anything useful from my mother" and this scene was a part of her coming to realize that this wasn't true.

D. Scott Phillips

Posted Tuesday, June 26, 2012, at 9:25 a.m.

I loved the film, and I think your "hearty stew served in a bread bowl" analogy perfectly fits the flavor of the film. I agree that the music fell flat (I certainly wasn't whistling the tune when I left the theater). I thought the dynamics between the family were incredible--much more complex and rich than those in The Incredibles (though The Incredibles is one of my favorites). The movie felt short--my friends and I glanced at each other in surprise when the credits started rolling. Thanks so much for pointing out the Miyazaki themes!! I also thought the will-o-wisps were like the "bobble-head" creatures in Princess Mononoke. Great review for a great film!

Connie Mace

Posted Tuesday, June 26, 2012, at 8:53 a.m.

Haven't seen it yet, but going this weekend with grandkiddos. We've been warned that it is too intense for wee ones (ages 5,7). What say you?

Gwen Meharg

Posted Monday, June 25, 2012, at 4:53 p.m.

Sometimes I miss the old Bill Cosby Show. I liked the way they related as a family. Respect, humor and all the ups and downs. I am ready for Bill to do a new show. Maybe he'll be the grandpa this time.

Paula Shaw

Posted Monday, June 25, 2012, at 10:22 a.m.

I LOVED Brave from start to finish. Having lived in Scotland for a couple of years, I have a special love in my heart for films that have anything to do with this grand and beautiful country. I LOVED Angus! I loved the beauty of Scotland that the film depicted. And I loved Merida's and Queen Elinor's hearts for each other. I'm not a movie critic, and I don't go to a movie to find its faults, so I really have no complaints. I loved it all the way around. :)

Keith Ling

Posted Monday, June 25, 2012, at 9:23 a.m.

I will address this film only. First of all, it is a blatant attempt to portray all men as bumbling fools with absolutely no culture. Secondly, Pixar has fallen into the trap of numerous wannabe production companies. This film features crude scenes which have nothing to do with the plot. I have come to expect better from Pixar. Thirdly, the resolution of the marriage issue in the end was ridiculous. These crude men that have no manners suddenly develop manners and listen for several minutes to a princess claiming to speak for the queen. This part lacked believability almost as much as the sudden change of heart of the extremely crude and violent men. There is absolutely no religious influence portrayed except the black magic and druid circle. The intended effect is to convince viewers that feminists know better and can change the hearts of crude, violent and ungodly men with logic.


Posted Monday, June 25, 2012, at 8:58 a.m.

I wish more movie reviews could be written like this one. It's a very rare skill you have, even among the industry's "best" reviewers.


Posted Sunday, June 24, 2012, at 7:53 a.m.

Just saw it last night. Absolutely worth seeing. My one qualm you didn't mention was that the fulfillment of the resolution. The mom and daughter should have had both to struggle and then fix each other's broken things. It all seemed rushed at the end, even the daughter's attempt mend her bond with mother.

Patrick Drazen

Posted Sunday, June 24, 2012, at 6:54 a.m.

Maybe Pixar is turning prematurely gray: Toy Story is almost 20 years old. Still, fairy tales have been based for centuries on the idea that the child must rebel against the parent, who doesn't always have the kid's best wishes at heart; look at Hansel and Gretel's parents. To me a far more constructive type of rebellion--not just Abbie Hoffman's "Revolution for the hell of it"--was stated by Pod Clock, father of the diminutive family in Arrietty, the latest from Studio Ghibli to come to the west. His advice to his daughter is to "observe, and then act." And while this disrupts the family to the point of having to move away, it also leads to Arrietty's friendship with the Boy (as the book calls him). Not only is this friendship useful in rescuing Arrietty's mother when she's captured, but it's a doorway to a larger world. As unlikely as the relationship may seem, Mary Norton's The Borrowers is tweaked by Studio Ghibli so that, for that one week, Arrietty and the Boy fall in love. And these two lonely adolescents come through the better for it.

Matthew Rees

Posted Saturday, June 23, 2012, at 11:37 p.m.

I agree with most of what you wrote, but I have to take issue with your comment about the music -- I thought the lyrical interludes were the highlights of the soundtrack and complemented the film perfectly. In any case, they were folk songs, not pop songs.

Stephen Graff

Posted Saturday, June 23, 4:53 p.m.

I thought Mr. Overstreet summed it up well. Critics have unfairly castigated a film that shouldn't be compared to previous Pixar classics because it's an entirely different kind of film. I think it's a great Pixar movie and I thoroughly enjoyed it because it covers new ground but, somehow, it's still grounded in the classic sense--a beautiful reworking of the Disney fairy tale.


Posted Saturday, June 23, 10:28 a.m.

Jeffrey, I saw this movie yesterday and it was fantastic. I don't know what people are complaining about because I didn't really like Up. This story was so much more enriching and surprising than a traditional Disney movie. We will be purchasing it for our one-day kids to watch with us! Absolutely loved the message that this movie conveys, and that's the most important thing. Also the scenery was amazing and it felt like we could step into the movie.

Bob D.

Posted Saturday, June 23, 2012, 9:45 a.m.

Thank you again, Jeffrey, for providing another example of why I prefer your reviews to those of any others that currently do the same.


Posted Friday, June 22, 2012, 2:10 p.m.

As always, your reviews give me far more to think about than most of the crowd of reviewers. Thanks for another one.

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