Once Pixar joined the Disney family, any self-respecting movie buff knew it would only be a matter of time before the studio made a princess movie. After all, princesses are as vital to Disney as ice cream is to apple pie, and though Pixar possessed a smattering of prior experience with young female royalty (remember Atta and Dot in 'A Bug's Life'?), it had never before allowed a princess - or for that matter a girl of any age - to dominate one of its films. Of course, one would hope any Pixar princess picture would stray far enough from the Disney mold to achieve a degree of integrity and individuality, and I'm happy to report the headstrong heroine of 'Brave' remains true to the Pixar brand by taking the role in a new and exciting direction. A roll-up-her-sleeves self-starter with contemporary ideas, a fiery spirit that matches her bushy red hair, plenty of backbone, and enviable athletic prowess, Princess Merida of 11th century Scotland is a force to be reckoned with, a modern lass trapped in a period setting, and with one hand tied behind her back, she could kick Cinderella's ass.
'Brave' is a breath of fresh air in the princess genre, a film that foregoes frilly dresses, saccharine songs, and gooey romance for action, thrills, and a seductive darkness. Even the generic elements it does embrace are shaken up and given an appealing twist. Though it surely doesn't rival the 'Toy Story' movies or 'Finding Nemo' for top Pixar honors, 'Brave' is nevertheless a vigorous, involving, and wholly entertaining family film that does the studio proud. After 'Wall-E and 'Up,' 'Brave' brings Pixar back down to earth with a back-to-basics, traditional, and wholly accessible yarn to which both kids and parents can easily relate. And there's nothing wrong with that.
Princess Merida (Kelly Macdonald) lives what seems to be an idyllic life with her father Fergus (Billy Connolly) and mother Elinor (Emma Thompson), yet as she enters her teenage years, a rebellious streak comes to the forefront as she questions age-old traditions and challenges her mother's rigid nature. Elinor wants Merida to be a lady and model of propriety befitting her title, but the young girl scoffs at such a notion, preferring to pursue outdoorsy activities and indulge her untamed spirit, much to her mother's chagrin. When Elinor invites three clans to the castle to compete for Merida's hand in marriage, the princess sulks over the prospect and disrupts the games, sparking a heated argument. Determined to make Elinor come around to her point of view, Merida flees the castle and convinces an old crone to concoct a transformative spell that will "change" her mother. What the princess doesn't realize, however, is that the potion incites a physical change, not an emotional one, turning Elinor into a massive bear and making her vulnerable to human assaults. What follows is a race against time, as the pair tries to reverse the spell and escape harm before the changes to Elinor become permanent and their relationship is destroyed forever.
Pixar cleverly uses the princess framework as a vehicle to explore the deeper issues of mother-daughter bonding. If you take away the cancer angle, 'Brave' could be classified as a 'Terms of Endearment' for the younger set. (Elinor is far from an Aurora Greenway, but the dynamics of the relationship are strikingly similar.) Learning to accept differences, make concessions, understand opposing views, and adapt to changing times and mores all within the tightness of the family unit is what 'Brave' is all about. The hints of mysticism and broad comedy nicely complement the main theme and make the message more palatable and less overbearing, and its medieval setting shows us such conflict isn't indigenous to the modern age. Pixar films always incorporate irreverent humor, and 'Brave' seems to enjoy sending up Scottish culture, even giving an off-hand nod to 'Braveheart' along the way.
The animation is, of course, spectacular, with meticulous attention paid to the smallest of details. The performances are fine, too, infused with enough enthusiasm and warmth to make the characters as dimensional as the images they populate. And after a couple of sequels (there's that Disney influence once again), it's nice to see Pixar return to an original story that transports us to a foreign setting and simpler time, and give young girls a spunky role model they can learn from and emulate.
At 93 minutes, 'Brave' is one of Pixar's shorter films, but despite its efficient storytelling, it still possesses a fair amount of depth. Though the characters it depicts may reside on a rarefied plane, the issues they confront are universal and timeless, and the ultimate message emphasizing the strong bonds of family, however trite, is presented in a poignant and effective manner. 'Brave' may not be as bold as its title, but it's a solid Pixar effort, celebrating not just girl power, but the power of understanding and mutual respect. It's a princess movie that should make the mouse beam.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Brave' arrives on Blu-ray in a five-disc Ultimate Collector's Edition packaged in a standard multi-disc case tucked inside an attractive 3D holographic sleeve. The case holds a Blu-ray 3D disc (containing just the movie and Pixar short 'La Luna'); two Blu-ray discs (the first contains the movie and a number of bonus features, while the second houses additional supplements); a DVD (containing the movie, two Pixar shorts, and an audio commentary); and a Digital Copy disc, which enables 'Brave' to be viewed on portable players via iTunes or Windows Media Player. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and both 7.1 and 5.1 Dolby TrueHD tracks are included. Once the disc is inserted in the player, an assortment of Disney previews play before the animated menu with music pops up.
Five stars is getting to be a routine score for Pixar video transfers, but the sheer pleasure that comes from watching the pristine, razor sharp, and gorgeously colorful images of Pixar movies on Blu-ray disc is never routine. And in the case of 'Brave,' the impact of those vital components is even more dazzling and palpable in 3D. From the opening sequence forward, 'Brave' is nothing short of breathtaking, with a picture so full of brilliant texture, astonishing detail, and eye-popping vibrancy, it's easy to forget it's an animated film.
Never been to Scotland? Forget buying a travelogue disc; 'Brave' transports you there, impeccably capturing the incredible light patterns, lush and predominant greenery, rocky crags, rushing rivers, and rolling hills that define the rugged landscape. Individual blades of grass sway in the breeze with jaw-dropping clarity, while superior contrast enhances depth and highlights foreground objects. Human figures are equally impressive. One look at Merida's flaming red, wild, curly, flowing locks and it's impossible not to be impressed with how accurately and naturally it's been rendered. Though faces still maintain a cartoonish appearance, expressions are fluid and realistic, with special attention paid to distinguishing details that set each character apart.
Colors burst forth with rare intensity. The orange-red of Merida's mane is mesmerizing, but the verdant hues of the trees, moss, and endless meadows are equally rich and varied. The pastels of costumes, such as Merida's pale blue gown, are delicate yet beautifully saturated, and the masculine browns exude terrific grit and boldness. Blacks are about as inky as they come, yet even nocturnal scenes and those that take place in dank, dark ruins maintain a pleasing crispness. Textures, from the wool kilts, burlap archery targets, and satin gowns to bushy eyebrows, wooden carvings, and bear fur, are incredibly life-like, and even the smallest bits of detail come through clearly. Lines are incredibly well defined, yet there's an elegant smoothness to the picture, a natural fluidity, that keeps this treatment from becoming a sensory assault.
The use of 3D is potent yet restrained. The purpose of the dimensionality is not to provide cheap thrills with plunging projectiles (although a couple of muted instances of such a gimmick are employed), but to rather expand the cinematic canvas and allow a greater sense of immersion through depth. Foregrounds protrude just enough to give us a point of embarkation, a path into the cavernous glens and stark coldness of lengthy stone corridors. Close-ups are stunning, with that extra layer of dimension lending greater weight to reaction shots and highlighting individual facial features. Large scale fight scenes and chases fare particularly well, with isolated bits of action crossing the screen's plane to deliver greater excitement and a thrilling sense of motion and velocity. In short, this is one of the best 3D treatments I've seen, rivaling 'Hugo' with its seamless construction and intelligent use of the process.
Of course, not a single nick, scratch, or mark could be detected on this antiseptically clean image, nor could any form of digital anomalies, such as noise, pixelation, banding, or edge halos. The 3D is perfect as well; no instances of ghosting, blur, or other issues cropped up during my viewing. Watching 'Brave' in 3D or 2D is a memorable experience from start to finish, and should impress the most discriminating videophile. The rest of us will simply be blown away.
Two lossless options - Dolby TrueHD 7.1 and 5.1 - are available, and both provide immersive, nuanced audio that beautifully complements the stunning image quality. Superior dynamic range handles all the action well, with bright, full-bodied highs and guttural lows bringing the various set pieces to glorious life. Surround activity is almost constant, ebbing and flowing with the story, smoothly bleeding from the front to the rears, and never feeling forced. From subtle atmospherics, such as birds chirping and rustling leaves, to powerful accents like slamming doors, clanking swords, and arrows hitting their targets, the sound dances across all five speakers with both ease and distinction.
Bass frequencies are also strong, lending some oomph to stomping feet and the powerful roars of Mor'du, yet the LFE track seamlessly blends into the whole. Patrick Doyle's music score, by turns rousing and introspective, also gets a nice treatment here, benefiting from solid fidelity and fine tonal depth. The delicate reeds emit a wonderful purity, while the pulsating percussion ramps up excitement but never overpowers the other instruments. Dialogue is well prioritized throughout, and though the authentic Scottish accents can, at times, be a bit difficult to understand, all conversations are clear.
No imperfections mar this high-quality track. Despite a smorgasbord of sonic elements competing for attention, distortion is never an issue, and no break-ups or drop-outs, hiss or surface noise ever crop up. Once again, Pixar comes through with a terrific mix that adds body and texture to an involving story.
Most of the supplements are high-def exclusives (see below), but a few are shared between the Blu-ray and DVD editions.
Pixar shows its feminine side with its first princess movie, but 'Brave' is no shrinking violet. With as much muscle as its more masculine Pixar counterparts, this captivating portrait of a willful, free-thinking lass in 11th century Scotland combines action and mysticism with a relatable emotional core to produce a period piece that's refreshingly contemporary and utterly entertaining. And like all the Blu-rays in the Pixar canon, this disc shows off the film in the best possible light. A drop-dead gorgeous video transfer (that's even more mesmerizing in 3D), exceptional audio, and a wealth of supplements spread across two Blu-ray discs make 'Brave' a dazzling and memorable home theater experience. Unlike Merida's archery skills, the film may not always hit the bullseye, but this five-disc set sure does, and without question, it comes very highly recommended.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.