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Film Review: Brave

Brave (2012; Directed by Mark Andrews & Brenda Chapman)

A mild delight from the prolific Pixar stable, Brave reasserts popular Hollywood thematic paradigms unlike anything else to recently come out of the hit-making animation factory (or at least anything not involving talking cars). While evidently intended as a feminist-lite challenge to the submissive and romantic “princess” image that the studio’s mother corporation Disney has so lucratively disseminated for decades, Brave instead finds itself reifying other equally pervasive themes, namely those of individual freedom and red-blooded Celtic authenticity.

Set in a verdant fantasy of medieval Scotland, Brave is the tale of Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald), a teenaged Scottish tomboy princess with a shock of red hair, a fierce independent streak, and deft skills as an archer. While she dwells in a castle of cold, hard stone, she escapes it regularly to ride through lush forests, climb rocky cliff-faces, and drink from fresh waterfalls.

These settings reflect her contrasting relationship to each of her parents. Her hulking, lusty father, King Fergus (Billy Connolly), is her obvious model of behaviour, and the influence of his adventurous warrior spirit is what drives her into her sojourns in the wild (she shares his red hair, a clear stereotypical marker for this sort of temperamental inheritance shared by her three mischievous younger brothers). Her mother, Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson), rules over the domestic sphere with prim dignity and firm propriety, her rigid, proto-Presbyterian properness a seeming extension of the stony, immovable bones of the castle itself (she not-so-subtly directs the official court proceedings for her husband, who is more brutish than eloquent) .

Elinor has very specific and traditional ideas about the sort of correct and feminine princess the rebellious Merida must be, and those ideas decidedly do not involve riding, climbing, archery, or any other such “masculine” physical exertions (the French-language title of the film is the punning Rebelle, a far superior moniker considering the nature of the product). Like many a teenager, Merida chafes at the bonds of expectation her mother imposes upon her, and the conflict comes to a head when Elinor arranges an audition of marriage suitors from three of the great clans in Fergus’ kingdom for the hand of her resisting daughter. When Merida crashes an archery competition set up to determine the winner of, well, her, a wide rift opens between mother and daughter, symbolized by a rent torn in a painstakingly woven family tapestry between queen and princess.

Merida storms out of the castle and is led by mysterious faerie wisps to a hermit witch (Julie Walters) disguising herself as a woodcarver.  In reply to Merida’s exhortation to provide her with an enchantment that will “change” the queen, the witch whips up a compact cake that will do the trick when fed to Elinor (our heroine neglects to specify the nature of the change, a prudence which would render many a similar fairytale dull and predictable). Of course, the spell has unintended consequences: it turns Merida’s mother into a large black bear, and the princess must race against time (and against discovery by her self-styled bear-slaying father) to change her back.

If the plot’s main elements have the taint of the borrowed about them, then many of the colourful particulars are more inventive. Plenty of comic detail concentrates around the clans, one of which is smirkingly called Clan MacGuffin and features a young scion whose Scots dialect is wholly, hilariously impenetrable (Kevin McKidd voices both him and his more verbally distinguishable father; Robbie Coltrane and Craig Ferguson are the other clan leaders). Merida’s brothers are unstoppable ginger triplet hellions who terrorize the castle and occasional aid in her schemes. If I was mostly unamused by their antics, it would take a willfully blind observer to deny that small children are likely to dig them.

Most consistently funny and nicely-observed, however, is the physical comedy of Bear Elinor, who attempts to preserve her dainty mannerisms and cultured self-containment despite being saddled with an outsized ursine form. She tries to tread softly and gracefully through the castle after her transformation, but smashes objects inadvertently left and right; she attempts to eat berries with twig utensils and awkwardly flops about in a river to catch herself a meal of fish. Elinor’s gradual acceptance and ease with her wild animal form opens her up to reconciliation with and understanding of her unruly daughter, just as her daughter is able to accept in return that her mother’s manipulations come from feelings of care and concern.

The Scotsman is presenting. The circle of life circles on.

The trajectory of the healing of their bond privileges Merida’s personal ideology of active, unfettered freedom over Elinor’s emphasis on decorum and customary gender roles. Although she briefly shows enough self-possession to defuse an inter-clan dispute (with her bear-mother’s background coaching) by employing a queen’s tact and a king’s appreciation of the exchange value of masculine martial prowess, it is a freedom without responsibility that Merida wishes for and eventually receives. It’s also a freedom blithely unconcerned with historical anachronism. Her rejection of marriage as a tool of political alliance-building and assertion of individual control of her fate is a wish-fulfillment fantasy of modern proportions (as well as an oft-exploited corporate tool of marketing mass conformity as an expression of distinctiveness). Much like Braveheart’s vaguely democratic exhortations to freedom, there is nothing in medieval social custom to support Brave’s conception of personal command of life choices, in particular for a noblewoman.

Another similarity between Brave and Braveheart, and the one that sticks most firmly, is the film’s pandering to pervasive stereotypes of the Highland Scots culture and character. Like Mel Gibson’s Oscar-winning epic, Brave’s medieval Highland Scots alternately wear kilts of belted plaid (not worn in Scotland until the 16th Century) and Celtic woad body paint (common to the Picts of the earlier Roman period but not later, it is believed), all while drinking and eating and fighting like the vigorous, savage wild personifications of the id that they supposedly are. These stereotyped and inaccurate elements are deployed here as pastiche and meant to satirize the ludicrous depictions of the Scots common to the American cinema, certainly. But the result is that Brave glibly ridicules these widely-recognized markers of Scottish cultural identity while simultaneously crafting a visual aesthetic based on mist-shrouded Highland settings and the lines of Celtic art. It wants to have Scotland both ways, and it can’t, really.

Brave, therefore, is a bit of a liminal film, stuck in the gutters between the tropes it wishes to upend and the ideological compulsions that it cannot help but follow. It faintly mocks the misapprehended terms of Scottish cultural identity while relying on popular conceptions of stereotypical Celtic self-reliance and unruliness to advance its central themes. The dialogue it seeks to establish between princessly femininity and contemporary feminism is awash with fuzzy maternal dominance, and mistakes furious physical activity for pure female agency (it also does next to nothing interesting with its witch character, which could be fertile ground for a more groundbreaking cinematic feminism). More than anything, Brave is not terribly brave. It wastes its enjoyable qualities and the considerable potential of its ideas on vaunted re-workings of conventional animated film tropes that serve mostly to re-entrench those tropes. Which is too bad, as there was ample opportunity for much more.

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