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.
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.