Kelly Macdonald FTW
I'm not a fan of the perky Disney Princesses but I have to say that the Disney-Pixar "Brave" (opening June 22 throughout San Diego) went down pretty easy, thanks in large part to the delightful Kelly Macdonald.
Okay, maybe because I'm planning a trip to Scotland to go to the Fringe Festival I'm feeling a bit warm and fuzzy toward anything with a Scottish brogue.... Or maybe because Kelly Macdonald, Billy Connolly, and Emma Thompson are genuinely good voice actors... Well whatever the reason, "Brave" proved to be less annoying than most of the recent American produced animated fare hitting theaters.
The story is a hero's tale but with a fiery red-headed heroine. Merida (Kelly Macdonald) is a skilled archer and the defiant daughter of King Fergus (Billy Connolly) and Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson). She's been instructed by her mother on how a princess should behave and been told that she must follow tradition and marry one of the young men presented to her. But Merida has ideas of her own and her defiance of tradition leads to the usual upheaval, chaos, and a bit of sorcery.
Directed by Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman (who was replaced during the course of production, and after putting in 6 years of work on a script she co-wrote), is yet another Disney produced (but Pixar animated) tale of a feisty young heroine aimed squarely at young girls but with a determined effort to also make it appealing or at least not repulsive to little boys. The change in directors -- which came after the disappointing box office showing of Disney's "The Princess and the Frog" -- may reflect the studio's concern over a film that looked too girlie to tap into a broader audience.
For the most part, "Brave" works for both girls and boys because it moves quickly, focuses on action rather than emotion, avoids silly songs, and has no love story. Merida falls more into the "warrior woman" vein of Mulan than the feisty but very girly heroines of "The Little Mermaid" and "The Princess and the Frog." But "Brave" still nowhere near the status of Hayao Miyazaki's true women warriors in "Naucicaa" and "Princess Mononoke." In fact the difference between all these American animated films and Miyazaki's is that Miyazaki focuses first and foremost on just telling a good story rather than trying to figure out how he can turn his story into something that will appeal to a broader audience. He understands that boys are fine with female characters if those characters are good and strong. I took an anime club class to see "Howl's Moving Castle" in which the lead character was a young girl who becomes an old lady because of a curse and the boys were riveted and loved the film, and no concession was made to try and retool the story so it could be better marketed to boys.
As I mentioned, the voice talent also makes a big difference. Macdonald is a delight to listen to. She is completely engaging and creates a character that's passionate, determined, and smart but also occasionally selfish and short-sighted. She manages to combine strength and vulnerability. Connolly, who has always been something of a cartoon character even in real life, is great fun as a loving but not always effective father, and Thompson brings some dignity to the proceedings. Julie Walters makes a nice cameo as a witch.
The film has a good sense of humor. Take for example when the men need to make an escape and fashion a rope ladder from their kilts and then walk away from the camera bare-assed. Merida and her dad also have nice interplay and can joke with each other. The whole family dynamic is fun as Merida's rambunctious trio of little brothers come into play.
The 3D is nice but not particularly exciting. The animation doesn't really need the gimmick of 3D. Merida's hair dominates most of the frames so it's good that hair animation has become so good. As in "Tangled," animals are a chief highlight. While it was a horse that nearly stole the show in "Tangled," in "Brave" it's a bear. But that's all I'll say.
"Brave" (rated PG for some scary action and rude humor) is better than average American animation. It's visually pleasing and boasts fine voice acting that makes the film easy to watch.
Companion viewing: "Tangled," "Princess Mononoke," "Nausicaa"
And here are some related links regarding women in animation:
Tough Enough (on women directing animation)