Review by The Isolated Moviegoer:
It was bound to happen. After nearly 20 years of unparalleled family entertainment, Pixar could only sustain its streak for so long. For many the honeymoon ended with one or both Cars, as the combination of two polarizing touchstones of Southern culture (NASCAR and Larry the Cable Guy) proved too much. For me, it’s taken until Brave for a Pixar film to leave me feeling anything less than electric.
The studio’s latest feature centers on Scottish Princess Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald) and her struggle to be herself in a world that has other ideas. The bulk of these expectations come from her mother, Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson, naturally), a confident monarch intent on upholding the traditions of her kingdom. None of that appeals to Merida. Instead of practicing speeches and minding her manners, she would rather fly through the woods on her trusty steed Angus, loosing arrows and scaling rocky cliffs.
King Fergus (Billy Connolly) approves of Merida’s interests and the two have the kind of special relationship common among fathers and teenage daughters. No such bond exists with her stickler mother, and when the Queen invites suitors from their three sister clans to vie for Merida’s hand (without informing the princess), the rift deepens. Enraged, Merida makes a deal with a forest witch to change her fate. In familiar Disney fashion, things don’t quite go as planned, leaving Merida to save the day before it’s too late.
That’s a fairly strong Pixar outline, but where are the talking toys, heroic fish, or culinary rats? Scottish lore seems ripe with intrigue and mythical beasts, yet all Brave can conjure are a few will-o’-the-wisps, a deranged bear, and a brief scene with the aforementioned woodland hag. Some will argue that the clever central twist, wisely excluded from the film’s trailers, is a grand, sustained case of movie magic. The concept is fine and leads to several powerful moments, but, indicative of the film as a whole, never quite reaches the upper echelon of Pixar wonder.
The general lack of imagination shifts greater responsibility to Brave’s story and characters, neither of which are strong enough to carry the load. The central mother-daughter conflict is the film’s key asset, but the one-dimensional elements surrounding it don’t help. Answers to complex issues come far too easily for Merida, her first thought nearly always being the right one. As she speedily pieces it all together, Brave rushes toward a resolution and brings too many minor elements together for the requisite rousing finale that, though effective on multiple levels, lacks the punch of its forebears.
No such flaws are evident in The Incredibles and Up, Pixar’s other “real people” films. (For the record, though it’s akin to picking favorite children, those two are probably my favorites of the bunch.) Neither is restricted by its flesh-and-blood characters, who are forced to struggle for solutions, trying various approaches before finding one that works. They’re also surrounded by scene-stealing co-stars and wildly creative elements. Their stories feel carefully plotted, with each twist designed to get the characters (and the audience) to just the right ending at just the right pace.
By comparison, Brave feels simple and sloppy. Like its predecessors, the film is beautifully constructed and, for the most part, a worthy entry in the Pixar canon. Merida’s flowing red hair alone is worthy of a special-achievement Oscar, yet as the studio has proven again and again, there’s more to their success than high quality animation. Its most recent offering is good enough, but after so many memorable hits, it’s the closest they’ve come to a miss.
Grade: B- (which by Pixar standards is more like a C-)
For more film reviews, visit The Isolated Moviegoer.