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...
While it is refreshing that Pixar has at last built a film around a female protagonist, Merida has a touch of the generic to her, a lack of telling idiosyncrasy.
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.