Quick Note: I’m going to keep this review short because I’m intending on posting a further rant about the past, future and present of Pixar soon which shall cover more of the minor issues I had with the film. Keep an eye out for it.
If there were three movies this year that had the most to live up to, those movies would be The Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises and Brave. With these sorts of movies, hype can be quite the double edged sword in that it raises excitement for a movie and drives up box office numbers while at the same time setting the audience’s bar so high that they will likely judge it more harshly than other, less anticipated fare. Up until 2010 Pixar had the seemingly unique ability to reliably exceed even the highest expectations year after year, reaching its height with Toy Story 3. That movie’s critical and financial success, however, was followed up with the comparative failure on both accounts of last year’s Cars 2, and many began to wonder if Pixar had finally lost its spark after over a decade of film making. Enter Brave. The earliest trailers sought to set it apart by featuring Pixar’s first true female lead, and many regained hope that the animation studio’s star had not yet faded. Now that the wait is over, I have a feeling that most of the audience will have ended up not with what they’d hoped for or feared but what they had honestly expected. Brave is certainly a step in the right direction for Pixar and under most standards it would have measured up in nearly every way, but it never quite reaches the dizzying heights of the studio’s previous works.
Brave is in its essence a story of a rebellious child and her struggle between duty and freedom. Merida (Kelley MacDonald) is the quintessential Tom girl who happens to be the daughter of the King and Queen of the Northern Kingdom of Scotland. While the setting of medieval Scotland is uncharted territory in animation, the “rebellious princess” angle is a setup which has served as a tent pole for a great deal of Disney’s recent movies and in itself is enough to rob the movie of a great deal of the originality featured in movies like Up and Wall-E. In any case, the story line itself starts out basic enough; Merida is happily living life to the fullest until she finds out that she is to be betrothed to the firstborn son of one of the three other families that rule the kingdom. Her mother Elinor (Emma Thompson) is none too pleased at her resistance, having spent all of Merida’s life trying to turn her into a proper lady. Long story short, Elinor and Merida’s disagreements boil over and Merida rides away into the woods. Upon reaching a mysterious stone circle, Merida is led further into the woods by an etherial trail of “wisps” until she reaches a hovel inhabited by a zany old witch. In exchange for her jeweled necklace, Merida asks for the witch for a spell that will change her mother and thus change her fate. I won’t give anything away but from this point the story takes something of a twist from the usual princess tale until its somewhat Beauty and the Beast like finale.
In general the movie is very well put-together and the tone effectively moves from dramatic to heartfelt to humorous with great ease. On the dramatic end, the movie is dominated by the mother-daughter relationship of Merida and Elinor and between very strong voice acting and a relateable source of conflict that particular dynamic of the movie holds up quite well. It was definitely refreshing to see a “Disney Princess” movie which focused on the main character’s relationship with her mother rather than a love interest, and it’s that side of Brave which differentiates it from other similar family films. On top of that though I doubt anyone will deny that the animation looks more gorgeous than ever. From the scenery of the Scottish Highlands to every ripple in the water and every fiery strand of hair on Merida’s head there is an incredible attention to detail in every visual. In particular though, one thing Pixar still manages better than any other studio is the ability to convey strong emotions through their computer generated characters, which is no easy feat by any means. It’s that sort of life that Pixar has always brought to its characters, and come rain or shine that is something that isn’t likely to change any time soon.
The supporting characters are all fine and are mostly there for the occasional laugh and plot advancement. All combined, though, the occasional laughs cover a great portion of the movie and should make it an enjoyable experience for even the most critical viewer. Merida’s father Fergus (Bill Connelly) is perhaps a tad over the top at times, but he’s certainly more likable than not as the sympathetic father figure for Merida. While it is ultimately Elinor who wears the pants when it comes to ruling the kingdom and disciplining Merida, Fergus’ character is more of a stereotypical “man of the house”, in this case “man” meaning dull-witted and macho but ultimately kind hearted. While the humor offered by characters like Merida’s father and the other lords tends to be more on the slapstick end of the spectrum, it’s more similar to past Pixar humor than the obnoxiously overdone slapstick of movies like Alvin and the Chipmunks.
Brave is a very well done movie which should prove to be a great fit for most age groups, yet it feels more on the level with Disney’s Tangled than any of Pixar’s Pre-2011 work. The animation is pristine, the humor is abundant and the characters often manage to reach a point of emotional depth that we’ve come to expect from the studio which has given us some of best movies of the past decade, animated or not. Unfortunately, there are just enough things holding it back to prevent it from leaving the same impact as movie like Up or Finding Nemo or Toy Story 3. While it was probably smart to go with a tried-and-true premise for their first post-Cars 2 project, I sincerely hope that in the future Pixar won’t become yet another sequel-based distributor like Dreamworks or Blue Sky just because studio executives want to play it safe.