by Justin Jasso
At first glance, Brave seems much like an old-fashioned animated Disney princess film done using modern technology. Most of the elements are in place: the plucky heroine, the faithful animal companion, a mysterious wizard, and a character-building journey. There are even a few songs. Looking deeper, however, there’s something missing: narrative momentum. The miniscule storyline takes us on an adventure, to be sure, but not necessarily the adventure you thought you were taking. The tone is uneven and more often dismal than joyful. The pacing is slow and at times almost tedious. The end result is something that feels like it was put together from a jumble of Disney clichés tacked onto the skeleton of Beauty and the Beast and Brother Bear.
Princess Merida (Kelly Macdonald), the animation studio’s first proper lead female heroine, no less, is a feisty teenage redhead with magnificently unkempt hair who prefers shooting her bow and riding her horse to the princess duties constantly put on her by her mother, Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson). Her father, King Fergus (Billy Connolly), is a giant, peg-legged boy-man with an monstrous passion for food, booze and fighting, and only one apparent hatred: the hideous bear Mor’du, who devoured his limb many years prior. Matters come to a head when the leaders of three clans, who have united with Fergus to keep the kingdom at peace, travel to court in order to fulfill a ceremony which demands that his daughter marry one of their eldest sons. Merida sets off in a rage into a nearby spooky forest; there she finds what may just be a way to shift the course of her life away from its seemingly inevitable conclusion.
The lack of both a romantic element and a real villain is only part of the problem. Something sad has happened within Pixar. With Brave as a lackluster follow-up to the misfire of Cars 2, they don’t seem to be going anywhere fast. Gone is the magic they infused in great films like The Incredibles, Finding Nemo, WALL*E, and the Toy Story trilogy (Toy Story 4 has been rumored). Gone are the days when movie-lovers of all ages could celebrate the release of a new Pixar feature. They have fallen back to the pack, and maybe even slipped a little behind. Even the defenders of Brave have to admit that this is “lesser Pixar.” Brave lacks a strong appeal to kids (too slow, too dark) and adults. The “Disney” and “Pixar” names assure an audience but it’s hard to imagine Brave generating a lot of enthusiasm. Its final numbers will likely be closer to those of Cars 2 than Up.
Visually, Brave may be the greatest thing that Pixar has accomplished. Andrews, Chapman and their team create something vibrant and new and, though we know we are watching animation, Brave is the studio’s most photorealistic movie yet, capturing the Scottish forests and castles. The crisp feel puts you right behind the saddle with Merida as she rides through the woods slinging arrows into targets hanging in the trees.
On a positive note, the heart of the movie is the eternal struggle between mother and daughter, and the material is treated in such a way that it becomes emotionally relatable. Without giving away the twist at the core of the story, a “major transformation” forces Elinor and Merida together, and the two are not only able to bond but see things from each other’s perspective. The tension ramps up wonderfully at the start of the story, as Merida’s wildness conflicts with the Queen’s traditional values, and the end is just as passionate and tear-jerking as any other movie in the Pixar vault. But what prevents the movie from reaching the highest levels of our standards is a certain spark that introduces the ordinary to the extraordinary.
Brave isn’t Pixar’s greatest movie nor is it their worst. And it’s better than most other animated films that come along. The film itself follows a character who wants her independence and the chance to prove her strengths as an individual. Perhaps that’s the best way to view Brave as well.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 Stars