Brave ★★★½

When I published my Pixar ranking a few days ago, I was immediately beset on all sides with indignation as to Brave’s high placement. Being particularly fond of it as a childhood staple, I defended the film and kept it firmly in my top five. Now, upon a rewatch prompted by nearly universal criticism, I can definitely admit Brave doesn’t hold up as well as I’d have liked: under a critical eye, it’s visually a lower-tier Pixar, and anything the film tries to say about fate and destiny is muddled and nonsensical (although its initial treatment of the Will o’ the Wisps is very compelling—supernatural forces guiding one on a predetermined path—this approach is abandoned for a much more reductive and, to put it bluntly, stupid Disney cliche). 

That’s not to say, however, that there aren’t redeeming graces aplenty: I adore the dark fairy-tale elements of this movie and wish there were more of it, and although the textural quality of the animation isn’t on par with a film like Up or Toy Story 3, the settings and character designs are glorious, Mordu the demon bear being especially chilling and awe-inspiring. Then there’s the simply incredible third-act climax (Brave’s second half is much better than its first) that, without spoiling anything, really hits hard (Patrick Doyle’s magnificent score, comprised mainly of deep strings with the occasional mellow bagpipe, is in turn plaintively sweeping and hauntingly wistful, and a main player in the finale’s impactful effect). 

And, despite how the majority may protest, there are some interesting things being expressed here. At its core, Brave is a film about conflict and reconciliation, and the script plays with this notion in more ways than one: there’s the explicit central plotline between Merida and her mother, but also the tug between tradition and reform, freedom and responsibility, innocence and maturity. There are not one, but two bears who act as supporting players in opposition with one another, a king and his lords who can’t sustain civil discourse without breaking into anarchic discord, and looming over it all, a dark legend that speaks of the devastation wrought by division. 

Instead of establishing these various polarities and then selecting one or the other to exhort, Brave moves to harmonize them into a unified whole: the rift between mother and daughter is healed, tradition is honored but not deified, and freedom is not equated to a lack of responsibility. Maturity is reached through recognizing personal responsibility, good triumphs over evil, and the film does, after all, end in holy matrimony: two seemingly irreconcilable odds brought together as a new sun rises over old, hallowed ground (it’s no accident that Brave’s coda occurs at this marriage of dark and dawn). 

I’m ready to concede that Brave isn’t the best Pixar has to offer, but in this case, “not the best” is a far cry from inadequate. Even though Merida wouldn’t have to take a second shot, there’s no shame in it for those who want to give her film another try.