Review: Surprising ‘Brave’ Tells Sweet Tale of Family Love

Brave, the first release from Pixar to star a female lead, is a bit of a conundrum for the movie critic.

It’s one of those flicks in which a writer should not reveal the central surprise that comprises the bulk of the movie.

Is it a review if I say I liked it very much and just leave it at that?

I suppose not.

I will tell you, however, that the film is nothing like what you expect going in, having seen the trailer and ads.

The set-up is there, to be sure. Merida (voice of Kelly McDonald) looks at first glance to be your now-typical modern girl-power female warrior. A mess of raucous red hair and inappropriate table manners, she does not want to marry a leader of a local clan and settle into a feminine world of gentility. She’d rather shoot her arrows and ride her horse and let her hair flow untamed.

Girls are as good as boys. They can fight too. Blah blah blah. That seems to be about the only story we get nowadays.

But Brave only begins there. That Merida is strong and capable is a given, a starting point.

Her mother (Emma Thompson) desperately wants Merida to conform, and not entirely for selfish reasons. The two females talk but do not speak the same language, hear each other but do not listen.

And so Merida comes to her choice and a spell that sets the story on its path.

The story we expect to be about girl empowerment is, instead, about family love. And it’s lovely.

That’s all I can say.

The film differs from Disney princess movies in tone and content. Although there are funny and light moments, there is no wisecracking animal sidekick such as the chameleon in Tangled or the genie in Aladdin. Nor is there a villain with evil schemes. The witch who does show up is more of a goofy shopkeeper and not at all sinister or bad intentioned, although she is tricky. Little spirits inhabit the woods, but they are helpful sprites. The movie is not a musical, in the sense there are no singing cutlery, menagerie, or undersea creatures.

As one would expect from Pixar, the animation shines, with Merida’s hair alone radiating tangled, curly glory. The Scottish setting is rendered in lush vibrancy, now green and rich with moss, now foggy and mysterious, but always beautiful. Set against a score from Scottish composer Patrick Doyle and Gaelic singer Julie Fowlis, the film evokes the feeling of the Scottish highlands of long, long ago.

Rated PG, there are a few suspenseful sequences which will scare the youngest viewers, but no disturbing violence, no sexuality, and no inappropriate wink-wink jokes.

In fact, the film is an unexpected and delightful departure from ordinary animated family fare. It’s not really a princess movie, and that’s a good thing. Nor is it a wacky animated adventure. Instead, it’s a misty and lovely foray into the heart of families and their love for each other, love that is stronger than either the stubborn will of the heart or exterior dangers.

It’s a welcome change. I highly recommend it.

About Rebecca Cusey

Rebecca is a lead critic and editor of entertainment at Patheos. Follow her on Twitter @Rebecca_Cusey

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/happycatholicbookshelf/ Julie D.

    Thank you so much for not giving any of the story line away. I have been nervous about reading reviews ever since Steven D. Greydanus warned that many early reviews were including an important plot point. This was my litmus test, in a way, to see if you would drop anything … and you didn’t! YAY! :-D

    I am now looking forward to this movie SO MUCH MORE than I was after reading the major critics’ comments.

    • Rebecca Cusey

      It’s very much all or nothing with this movie. It’s unusual I have to tiptoe so much.

  • Maureen

    You could talk about deerhounds. Well, nothing spoilerish about them — but deerhounds are good in general. (And yeah, animating deerhounds on top of animating crackling red hair is sort of like Pixar bragging.)

    • Rebecca Cusey

      Ha. Showoffs!

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/thecrescat/ The Crescat

      I read it took three years to write 2 animation programs for that hair!

  • Sherry

    It was wonderful, a wonderful thing to take three of my girls to see. Thanks for the push out the door. I’d thought, another heroine princess who knows better than her family in all things coming of age blah blah…and I was pleasantly pleasantly surprised.

    • Rebecca Cusey

      I so glad you liked it!

  • pagansister

    Thank you for a review that makes me want to see the movie even more! I’m well into my 60′s, but have a love of anything Celtic! Heritage and all that. I may be the oldest person in the theater and that will be no problem! :o)

    • Rebecca Cusey

      Enjoy!

  • http://semitheologian.com Christopher Kerr

    Not that I think it was wholly inappropriate, but while you mention a lack of sexuality, there was a scene with a group of unkilted men, along with that cleavage dive . . .

    It was an outstanding film, and you’re absolutely correct. It was nothing like you would expect, judging by the trailers.

  • David K. Monroe

    I appreciate your review and it has given me something to think about, but I saw the movie yesterday and I was very underwhelmed. Regardless of the lack of a wisecracking sidekick, a love interest, or a sentient villain, the plot seemed to be a variation of the common theme of “Princess doesn’t want arranged marriage, thinks she must fight her parents in order to be herself.” In some important ways I thought the story was a mess – there was no compelling reason for the mother to change her mind about her daughter’s demands, and in my opinion there was nothing really “brave” about the actions that Merida takes in the movie. Her main action was extremely foolhardy, and it ultimately uncovered her love for her mother, but not any interior “bravery” that was undiscovered before.

    • Jo Jenson

      While I can see your points on a surface level of the film, I disagree with your interpretation of the plot and underlying lessons on bravery in the story. I think you missed the point. I saw the “Princess doesn’t want arranged marriage, thinks she must fight her parents in order to be herself” theme as the very beginning of the story, the catalyst that starts us toward the deeper story-line of the relationship between mother and daughter. This relationship is torn, as you say by “Princess doesn’t want arranged marriage, thinks she must fight her parents in order to be herself”, the main story is the repairing of the relationship. The growing understanding between mother and daughter is the “compelling reason for the mother to change her mind about her daughter’s demands”. While you are correct Merida’s initial action that sets the plot in motion “was exteremely foolhardy” it is her introspection and realisation/claiming of consequences of her actions that is brave (i.e.” interior ‘bravery’”). I’m sorry if I am sounding criptic, I am trying not to spoil the movie for those who have not seen it.

      • Rebecca Cusey

        I couldn’t have said it better myself. Thank you.

      • David K. Monroe

        Well, I’d have to see the move at least once more (and I surely will at some point), but I don’t remember too much introspection on Merida’s part before the scene where Merida is prompted by her mother to declare her independence. Certainly one can see that by the end of the movie (during the sunrise scene) that Merida has a profoundly changed heart, but before that point it’s not quite so apparent. During the scene where Merida addresses the clans, I kept thinking, “If my child had done to me what this girl did to her mother, no way would I conclude that this child needs more self-determination!” Again, there is much more resolution in Merida’s character toward the end, but I just found the events to be somewhat haphazard.

        “Interior bravery?” Well, there are some interior insights that one needs to summon up great courage to realize, and there are some that are so crushingly obvious that one cannot possibly avoid them, and I think Merida’s realization about the true nature of her mother’s love for her (and the terrible danger that she put her in) was more of the latter. Also, Merida does a little voice-over at the end of the picture (the text of which I can’t seem to find on the internet), which seemed to say something like “bravery is being yourself.” Well, that didn’t seem to be the lesson of Merida’s experience at all. Rather, the lesson of the movie seemed to be, “Don’t try to change other people because there may be unforeseen and tragic consequences.” But I guess few people would have gone to see the movie if they had called it, “Prudence.”

  • Ellen C

    Can’t wait to see it and take my much spirited and stubborn daughter. Thanks for the review.

  • Mark D

    I heard a brief review of the movie on the radio that said the film terrified a few little kids at a screening. The reviewer gave strong caution for parents of younger children.

    • http://www.amazinggraceandasafehaven.com Carrie Wood

      I took my 5 year old daughter to see the film for a brave act that she had performed the night before. It was WAY to scary, WAY to violent. And it wasn’t just my kid. The little girl sitting next to use was crying. Here is the review I wrote for my blog:
      http://www.amazinggraceandasafehaven.com/2012/06/brave-did-not-make-my-daughter-feel-any.html

      • Rebecca Cusey

        Yeah. I think five is a little too young, unless the kid is particularly used to movies.

        Everyone knows their own kids. The movie is rated PG, which I think is the proper rating for this one. G means no one will be scared and PG means younger kids might be.

  • regular joe

    While I applaud your pleasure in the movie being more than the typical Girl Power Warrior thing (I like that movie better the first time I saw it when it was called Mu-Lan), I think the movie fell way, way, way below the usual Pixar level in terms of story and character. The story felt like the sort of mash up you often get from Hollywood, where there’s a managerial “high concept” and they hire some script doctors and directors to try, usually unsuccessfuly, to make something of it. It has no true core or heart to it, and even though the resolution to the central problem that gives it the obvious conclusion feels unsatisfactory, it felt like the ending was forced. And, frankly, the mother daughter dynamic felt forced and boring after a while.

    I think the central problem is exactly what you applaud, Pixar wanted to finally do a “Girl Story” but there is only one acceptable out there, the Girl Power warrior thing. Pixar is too good to recycle that boring unintelligent crap, so they tried to give us some of that and then add something else, something more truly girlish (conflict with Mom) on top, and then mashed on the Element Which Shall Not Be Named to give it some adventurous and mythological jazz. A confused mash up hash.

    So I’d say its better than obvious crud like Happy Feet, but falls massively short of what we expect from the shop that gave us Toy Story 3 and Nemo, and doesn’t even rise to the level of Tangled.


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