No Redheaded Stepchild: Brave Innovations Pay Off for Pixar

Over 17 years and a dozen feature films Pixar revolutionized computer animation. Today no other studio even comes close.

Pixar’s films have innovated not just with their technological expertise but in the realms of characterization, plot development, and creativity. With Brave debuting last week, Disney and Pixar raised the bar even higher, reaching astonishing new heights.

Fiery-haired Merida (Kelly Macdonald) is the daughter of King Fergus (Billy Connolly) and Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson) of the DunBroch clan in 10th century Scotland. Merida loves riding through the countryside and practicing her archery. She longs to choose her own fate and bristles at her mother’s attempts to school her in the ways of living like a princess. When Elinor invites the heads of the other clans to DunBroch to compete for Merida’s hand in marriage, the princess rebels, leading to a heated argument.

Merida takes off into the woods, where she follows will-o’-the-wisps to a witch’s cabin. She asks for a spell that will both change her fate and her mother. The result: Elinor transforms into a bear. Merida must then reverse the curse by repairing her relationship with Elinor. Along the way mother and daughter restore the bonds between the four clans and help Fergus face the legendary demon bear Mor’du, who took his leg in a battle years before.

Brave builds on Pixar’s previous accomplishments. The studio rewrote its animation software for the first time in 25 years to make this picture, providing a sumptuous feast for the eyes, along with some of the truest visual effects in animation. CGI water looks like actual water, animated fabric looks like fabric in real life. From the skin of a blueberry to a bear’s fur to Merida’s wild curls, objects’ textures leap off the screen. Many of the wide angle landscape shots look just like live action — the visuals left me speechless.

The voice talent in Brave exceeds any other film in the Pixar canon. The producers cast native Scottish actors like Macdonald and Connolly — who are not big name stars — in principal roles. Their voices along with other Scots in the cast bring authenticity to the film. Even more well-known talents like Oscar winner Thompson and Pixar stalwart John Ratzenberger inhabit their characters to near perfection.

Brave‘s music adds nearly as much to the film’s beauty as the visuals do. Patrick Doyle‘s score blends Celtic instruments with more traditional film orchestration and the original songs tie in well with both the plot and the score. Scottish Gaelic singer Julie Fowlis sings two amazing songs, “Touch The Sky” and “Into The Open Air,” while Mumford & Sons team with young British pop star Birdy for the soaring closing credit number “Learn Me Right.”

Brave breaks new ground for Pixar in other ways. Whimsy and light comedy often characterize the studio’s movies. While you’ll find plenty to laugh at in Brave, the spell-casting witch and bear-hunting violence create a tone darker than any other Pixar release. As a heroine Merida differs from Disney’s other princesses. Rather than sitting around singing and pining for a prince, she takes her fate into her own hands.

The film’s emphasis on family presents a different message compared to most modern fables. These days it seems like most movies geared toward the family have an environmental or anti-capitalist moral, but Brave places a high value on reconciliation and family unity. We see this emphasis in the witch’s curse and the legend of the original clans. Brave‘s message of mending family relationships is refreshing.

Pixar’s latest masterpiece spins a tale as exciting and unruly as Merida’s curly locks. The studio gambled with a dark fairy tale in a mysterious, enchanted setting, but with Brave the dare pays off. The artists at Disney and Pixar have truly outdone themselves with this film.

See Chris Queen’s ranking of the studio’s 12 films: The Pixar Canon: 4 Misses And 8 Hits 

And catch-up on more of Chris’s writings on Disney:

Disney’s Rich Ross: The Rise And Fall Of An Entertainment Mogul

John Carter: Old-Fashioned Sci-Fi Leaps to Life

The 10 Best Disney Songs by the Sherman Brothers

John Carter’s Long Road from the Civil War to the Silver Screen

Walt Disney’s 5 Greatest Innovations

The 10 Things You Must Do at Disney World

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