Pixar's latest is good by any standard but its own.
Over its brief history, Pixar has excelled at almost every conceivable aspect of animated filmmaking. Two notable exceptions, however, have been the managing of expectations and the creation of indelible female characters. In the first department, Pixar's trifecta of WALL-E, Up, and Toy Story 3 set the bar so stratospherically high that the studio was bound to fall short of it, as it did with Cars 2 and has now done again with Brave. And in the latter department, this newest good-but-not-great release—while representing admirable progress—suggests Pixar still has a way to go.
Brave tells the story of Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald), an irrepressible Scottish princess with a mane of red ringlets that approximates a solar flare. Her mother, Elinor (Emma Thompson), tries to raise the young lady to be a lady, but Merida prefers to escape the castle with her bow, whipping through the woods on horseback while bull's-eyeing target after target, like a cross between Annie Oakley and Katniss Everdeen. The day arrives, however, when to maintain peace in the realm she is required to wed the first-born son of one of her father's fellow clan chiefs. Merida rebels, first by dominating the archery tournament held to win her hand and, when that fails, by fleeing into the forest, where she stumbles upon a cottage inhabited by an old crone. There, she makes a rash wish that her fate might be changed. And changed it will be, though not at all in the way she had hoped...
With the exception of one novel twist (which I will not reveal), Brave is a rather conventional tale, with echoes of Mulan, The Little Mermaid, How to Train Your Dragon, and countless others. Like the flight of an arrow, its arc is swift but not hard to anticipate. The cultural jokes, for instance—about haggis and what Scotsmen wear beneath their kilts—are amusing but just shy of inevitable.
And while it is refreshing that Pixar has (at last) built a film around a female protagonist, Merida, too, has a touch of the generic to her, a lack of telling idiosyncrasy. In the past, Pixar's best female characters (Dory in Finding Nemo, Helen Parr and Edna Mode in The Incredibles) have been triumphs of vocal performance more than writing, and the same holds true here, with Macdonald's beautiful Lowland lilt breathing life into a character who might otherwise have joined a long line of semi-interchangeable Disney princesses.
Indeed, for all its charms, Brave is the least Pixar-y movie yet produced by Pixar. At its best, and even near-best, the studio has crafted films of stark originality, films that one could scarcely imagine being made by anyone else. Brave, by contrast, feels as though it could just as easily have been put out by Dreamworks, or Blue Sky, or Disney Animation. As an exploration of the maturing relationship between a mother and daughter, it has its moments of tenderness and insight. But it lacks the ideological infrastructure common to Pixar films, the deeper metaphor.
There's an unevenness of tone to the proceedings as well—sometimes too dark (be forewarned if you intend to bring young children), sometimes too slapsticky, and sometimes both at once. There's an odd dissonance to the early-middle portion of the film, when Merida has not yet come to terms with the enormity of her actions, yet we are nonetheless expected to laugh along with her hijinks.
Beyond Merida and Elinor, the peripheral characters remain distinctly peripheral. While Merida's father, Fergus (Billy Connolly), has a few moments of notable wit, his fellow chieftains (Robbie Coltrane, Kevin McKidd, and Craig Ferguson) are limited to escalating episodes of masculine oafishness. Merrida's three mischievous little brothers, meanwhile, are little more than a recurring gag, though an entertaining one.
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Why does Brave bear so little resemblance to past Pixar triumphs? Presumably it's a question of parentage. The movie was written and directed by Mark Andrews, Brenda Chapman, and Steve Purcell (with a script assist by Irene Mecchi). As such, it is the studio's first offering not to be directed and co-written by one or more members of its core team of John Lasseter, Pete Docter, Andrew Stanton, Brad Bird, and Lee Unkrich (though the first three served as executive producers). Is the band finally breaking up? Not exactly. But with Stanton (John Carter) and Bird (Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol, the upcoming 1906) branching out into live-action, and the next two Pixar features being directed by Dan Scanlon and Bob Peterson, the studio's evolution seems inevitable.
What hasn't changed—and presumably won't—is Pixar's technical mastery. Though it may fall short of the studio's best in many respects, Brave is ravishing to look at, from the wonderful wobble of a just-loosed fletch, to the will-o'-wisps that trace a path through the woods like bobbing, gaseous breadcrumbs, to the impressively frightening demon-bear that haunts Fergus. And the hair! Merida's carrot corona is alone worth the price of admission.
So by all means, go see Brave. But do your best to judge it against the customary standards of animated filmmaking, rather than the improbably lofty ones Lasseter et. al. have set for themselves. If there is one thing I can offer Pixar in return for the pleasure it has brought me over the years, it's this: a little help in managing expectations.