AN ARCHAEOLOGICAL LOOK AT PIXAR’S BRAVE
A review by Adrián Maldonado, Love Archaeology Magazine
A typical day out in Scotland. (Image: Disney/Pixar)
When I first heard that the next Pixar film was going to be set in medieval Scotland, I got very excited. Finally, I mused, we can move on as a people from the horrors of Braveheart (1995). Then I heard it was to be called Brave, and my heart sank a bit.
Thankfully, Brave rises above its lazy title. It creates a ridiculously lush landscape that draws you in from the very opening scenes, where every last leaf and blade of grass is individually rendered for maximum 3D effect. The movie’s various historical crimes are smoothed over by its immersive fairy-tale feel, and the mandatory kilt and haggis gags are given life by the Scottish voice actors. I must admit that the trailers I had seen led me to expect I would not like Brave very much, and I was delighted to be proved wrong.
I had thought I would nerd-rage over the glaring anachronisms. The movie is set in a Disneyfied vision of 10th century Scotland, where women wear tight gowns and wimples straight out of a 13th-century illuminated psalter, men wear 18th-century great kilts, and Victorian Highland Games are played in medieval castles. The only hint that the writers did any historical research is a single mention of a recent battle against Vikings, although any brownie points gained are quickly lost when this is followed by a report of a battle against a Roman fleet. The movie also has some throwaway shots of Pictish stones lurking in the background (which made me geek in my pants a little), and one of the clans is distinguished by their use of swirly blue Pictish tattoos. The Picts were, of course, history by the 10th century, but as their inscribed stones remain in the landscape even today, I can let that one go. In fact, I wish they had used them as much as the prehistoric stone circle which features prominently in all the promotional material. Note to tourists: Scotland is not covered in gloomy stone circles, but there are hundreds of Pictish stones, which are clearly much sexier.
I had thought I would be annoyed by the cut-and-paste rebellious teenage princess, tartaned up with a fiery red tangle of hair and bow skills to rival the girl with the funny name from the Hunger Games. Strangely, Merida (whose name alternately sounds like merde or murder when said in a Scottish accent) is not really the point of the movie at all, and despite making her hair bigger than everyone else’s, the show is stolen by virtually every other character, from her parents to her horse. Without giving too much away, the movie is not so much about Merida as it is about bears. It is notable that the original title of the film was The Bear and the Bow. There is a bit of a disconnect in the way it was marketed (Braveheart meets Pocahontas) with the movie that resulted (Pocahontas meets The Jungle Book). While for me, this was a nice surprise as I did not particularly want to see yet another Disney movie about arranged marriage, those hoping for Merida to paint her face blue and bow-hunt her way out of a magical forest may be disappointed. Despite lots of magical goings-on, Merida’s character begins and ends pretty much as you see her in the trailer. If only they had spent as much time rendering a character arc as they did with her distractingly realistic hair. At least they had the sense to cast Scottish actress Kelly Macdonald and not Reese Witherspoon, who they had originally wanted for the role.
I had also thought I would go off on a rant (again) about the way Scotland is depicted as a timeless Celtic theme park in American movies. It’s no secret that Visit Scotland invested £7 million into the marketing of Brave and that the Scottish Government is banking on Brave-fuelled tourism to lift it out of recession; First Minister Alex Salmond even said as much while attending the world premiere in Los Angeles wearing tartan trousers. The Pixar team reportedly came on a research trip to Scotland in 2006 in order to recreate the look and feel of monuments like the Callanish standing stones and Dun Carloway broch. So is it OK that despite all that, the Scotland of Brave could as easily have been achieved by watching Braveheart and Rob Roy (1995) and taking notes?
First Minister Alex Salmond sports a new ‘do for the occasion? (Image: The Scotsman)
In short, I had thought I would have lots of misgivings about Brave, but this bizarro-Scotland works brilliantly as a fairy tale. Despite my quibbles, there is no pretension to historical accuracy here, and it is clear that Pixar’s research instead went into nailing the Highland landscape, folk-music and wit of contemporary Scotland. The juxtaposition of Picts with castles and kilts and megaliths is clearly not intended as an historical reality. Rather, it is an impressionistic canvas painted with a palette only Scotland could provide. Like the early medieval Irish monastery of the Secret of Kells (2009), a cartoon fantasy inspired by the swirling patterns of Celtic art, archaeological remains are used as a staging point for the imagination.
Now that Scottish national identity is in the news again, many Scots will cringe that it is the narrow kilts-in-a-vast-empty-Highland-landscape image which is being projected abroad. In my humble opinion as an early medieval nerd, it seems a missed opportunity to explore the enigmatic world of the Picts instead of bog-standard witches and pixies, seeing as the movie is set in the 10th century. But I am, in a sense, happy that archaeology features so prominently in Pixar’s interpretation. Despite its pick-n-mix range of recognizable monuments, there is a consistency with the way archaeology was used to dramatic effect in the film that I really appreciated. Megaliths, brochs and machicolated towers become more than just background scenery, but nodal points where important events are triggered, which is, in a sense, the way in which archaeologists like to think monuments should act on people.
So despite my secret hope that this would be a movie about latter-day Picts trying to negotiate the transformations of the Viking Age by engaging with the material culture of their past, Brave is instead a fun fairy tale about witches and kilts. I’ll have to wait another day for a real Pictish flick, but for a good Highland fling (with actual Scottish actors for once), go ahead and see Brave. You can finally tell Braveheart to suck it.