You can spend 3+ years developing the technology to make bright red, flowing CG hair look perfect, but that doesn’t buy you a good story. That is not to say that Brave is a bad story—it’s just not the kind that Pixar has spoiled us with for the past 17 years. Brave is simply missing what I’ll call the “Pixar Factor”, that magic something that holds its films a head above all of the other studio animated features coming out these days. While Brave is fun and entertaining, it feels more like a forgettable DreamWorks film from 5 years ago.
Brave begins with the introduction of our hero Merida (voiced byBoardwalk Empire’s Kelly Macdonald) as a very young child. Her father King Fergus (with a great performance by Billy Connolly) gives her a bow and arrow for her birthday, much to the chagrin of her mother Queen Elinor (voiced by Emma Thompson). Later, after a battle with the evil bear Mor’du, her father loses his leg in the fight, leaving Mor’du at large. Cut to several years later, and Merida is still an extreme tomboy, wanting nothing to do with the princess that her mother and the rest of the kingdom expect her to become. So what does she do? She purchases a spell from a witch, and accidentally turns her mother into a bear. The rest of the movie deals with Merida’s relationship with her mother, as she tries desperately to turn her back into a human.
Something interesting about Pixar’s thirteenth animated feature is that virtually none of the plot is divulged in any of the trailers. That’s not to say that the plot of the film is bad, or even that it should be kept top secret for some reason. The fact is that the entire second act feels like the plot of a zany made-for-TV movie. Free-spirited redhead princess reconnects with her mother after turning her into a giant bear, next on the Disney Channel. It’s no real surprise that this plot was left out of all of the previews. The marketing department instead chose to focus on shots of Merida galloping through the forest on her horse, with cryptic voiceover allowing the viewer’s imagination to fill in all of the pieces. This works considerably better than trying to explain the actual plot of the film in 2 ½ minutes and not make it seem ridiculous.
Brave also marks the first film in the Pixar canon to feature a female protagonist. Unfortunately, she is not a terribly interesting character. She is fairly one note throughout most of the film—“I’m tough! I don’t want to be a princess!” This eventually makes way for, “Oh no! My mom is a bear!” Merida is not particularly engaging or likeable and she does not seem to care about anybody else’s problems but her own. If you compare her to several other animated female characters, she does not stack up (Ariel from The Little Mermaid, Belle from Beauty and the Beast, even Rapunzel from the Charming 2010 film Tangled). To be fair, there were several interesting characters inBrave, including Elinor (who was complex and interesting, even as a bear). Other side characters, including Merida’s potential suitors and their respective fathers, as well as her three younger brothers, made for some enjoyable moments throughout the movie.
I cannot write this review without at least mentioning the mind-blowing visuals. I brought up earlier Merida’s hair that took years to develop, and the incredible backdrop of medieval Scotland that almost makes you feel like you are in medieval Scotland. If you have seen the trailers, then you know what the film looks like, and although there is much to be desired, it still might be worth checking out on the big screen (especially in 3D) for that reason alone.
After last year’s disappointing Cars 2, and now Brave, Pixar has some catching up to do. With the aforementioned Tangled (a Disney film that did not include the Pixar stamp), as well as DreamWorks’ recent How to Train Your Dragonbeing significantly better than Pixar’s most recent efforts, Pixar better hope that next summer’s Monsters University (prequel to 2001’s Monsters Inc.) lives up to its hype. Brave is a nice little movie that will be a diversion for your little ones on a Saturday afternoon this summer, but it really is not too much more than that. In 30 years when the next generation is still watching Finding Nemo, Up, WALL-E, and The Incredibles, it is likely that Brave will be nothing more than a distant memory.
Movie Review by Mike Danner