Pixar strikes gold again. For once, its latest opus is a slightly lesser, slightly muddled confection than usual but nevertheless effortlessly entertaining, a typically joyful romp of silliness and animated splendour.
As Scotland’s First Minister jumps on the promotional bandwagon of a film whose title echoes Mel Gibson’s former epic you’d be forgiven for thinking this digital creation is about the female equivalent of William Wallace. Indeed the trailers show a feisty flame haired heroine loosing lethal arrows from her bow.
But this isn’t a family friendly take on Braveheart, it’s a locally set ‘wholesome’ message about choosing your own destiny and as with all Pixar stories about the value of a loving family unit. Ironically this time it’s done with a mildly subversive subtext about sticking two fingers up to society’s conventions whilst embracing the dark side of one’s nature, although I suspect only adults will pick up on this.
The central protagonist of the piece is Merida, a spirited and rebellious Princess to be - the teenage daughter to Queen Elinor whose husband is the loud, life loving, drinking and brawling King Fergus. He once lost a leg in a legendary battle with a fearsome bear who still roams the lands unvanquished. He never tires of telling the assembled masses about his heroics and close brush with death.
The Queen strives in vain to bring civil and regal standards of conduct to her household and home (it looks inspired by Urquhart Castle on the shores of Loch Ness) and prepares Merida for marriage to one of the sons of the local Clan Chiefs. They are of course a bunch of comically violent losers and naturally Merida resists. Only her skills in archery at the selection event for her suitor saves her from the bonds of a loveless domesticated life.
Exasperated and insulted the various clans get busy drinking, arguing and fighting over what’s going on and whose insulting whom as Merida nips off on her own adventure to choose a new fate. And with the ill advised help of a local witch she makes a terrible choice that will tear her world in two.
It’s at this point the film goes off into unexpected territory and perhaps in some ways a slightly more grown up one than we’re used to from Pixar as we get a dark fairytale edge to proceedings. It’s not without a couple of frightening encounters that might test younger children’s constitution.
As usual the period setting, the landscapes, the quality of light, the sense of space, of movement and the attention to detail is exquisite. It looks and feels like Scotland. In contrast most of the characters with plenty of slapstick gags and colloquial vernacular is an affectionate send up of Scottish stereotypes and caricatures. There’s plenty of bagpipes, alcohol and comedy fighting by foul-mouthed warriors. It’s all haggis, thistles and tartan but done with the tongue planted firmly in the cheek.
The film really works when it deviates from its morality tale (which is ‘be careful what you wish for’ and ‘try to love your mum, she’s doing her best’). Billy Connolly’s King Fergus steals the film sounding as if he’s improvising and mocking the very script he’s delivering. Brave swings wildly from pantomime to high stakes action with a few smidgens of terror.
It’s an occasionally uncomfortable clash of temperaments but I laughed out loud frequently and again marvelled at the detail Pixar deliver that one forgives minor storytelling faults. There seemed a few threads and loose ends that didn’t really get tied up properly - doubly ironic as the whole film revolves around a torn tapestry in need of repair.
As enjoyable and as impressive as Brave is however, it was for me upstaged by La Luna, a five minute short preceding the feature. Its simplicity and execution is genius – a joyous piece of pure cinema that took my breath away and reminds one of what the silver screen is for.
Brave is released in Scotland on 3rd August and the UK on 17th August.