The bar can be a tricky thing. Set it too low and your accomplishments don’t mean anything. Set it too high and people expect the moon from you every time. So it is with Pixar, whose extraordinary run encompasses some of the greatest films of the past decade. Brave, unfortunately, pays a steep price for its association. Had another studio released it, we might have been much kinder towards it. But perfection is a harsh mistress and as a film from the studio that practically embodies the term, Brave can’t help but suffer.
In the storyline, at least. Animation-wise, it stands with their very best. The landscapes and settings of ancient Scotland are stunning in their detail, while the characters themselves contain as much heart and visual personality as any of Pixar’s previous creations. It’s particularly apparent in the film’s heroine, Merida (voiced by Kelly MacDonald), whose wild red hair and fierce expression make up for a lot of what the script lacks.
Ah yes, the script. Pixar’s vaunted magic bullet, developed with care and attention to set the rest of Hollywood to shame. And had the rest of Hollywood developed it, it might have passed muster. It’s a rather rambling affair, concerning the loving but strained relationship between Merida and her mother Queen Elinor (voiced by Emma Thompson). She wants the girl to get married to one of three feckless young lords, while Merida prefers running wild in the hills and forests near their home. The conflict reaches a head after an archery contest, and Merida decides she needs a little magic to change her mother’s mind. That proves to be a disastrous mistake.
The shaggy dog aspect of the story comes as a surprise, especially considering Brave’s tight running time. The mother-daughter conflict arrives amid a host of other ideas, including a witch, a cursed bear, Merida’s three mischievous brothers ,and her father the king (voiced by Billy Connelly), who lost his leg to the bear and has parlayed the injury into an endless series of party stories. They all match this world perfectly, but they never cohere into a focused narrative. We just meander towards a twist at about the halfway point, which dramatically shifts gears and never links the two sides of the film. Directors Brenda Chapman and Mark Andrews keep everything from falling apart, but it’s a near thing sometimes… far closer than we would expect from a film of this pedigree.
The heroine evinces similar problems. MacDonald is in fine form and Merida’s visual profile promises great things, but the story simply fails to deliver on them. At the end of the day, she’s another rebellious teen with a wild streak – a fiery redhead straight from the Hollywood Playbook of Convenient Stereotypes – and Brave’s muddled arc for her covers far too much cliché for comfort. As has been noted, this represents the first Pixar film featuring a female figure as the main protagonist. She deserves more than a few one-word character traits to tell us who she is.
Similarly, the film’s use of Scottish humor displays a surprisingly obvious quality that rapidly diminishes its laugh factor. A few deft touches (such as naming a clan “MacGuffin”) battle uphill against lazier jokes about thick brogues and the indigestibility of haggis: gags any third-rate screenwriter could have rattled off. A fair share of them work; just not enough to wow us the way we’ve come to expect.
None of this makes Brave a failure, and had it come from another animation house, I might be inclined towards greater charity. The visuals do wonders and the story contains enough cohesion to get us through the beginning, the middle and the end. It’s worth a look for the design if nothing else. But – until last summer at least – Pixar never “got us through” anything, and Brave’s comparatively pedestrian nature constitutes a hearty disappointment. Frankly, I’m not comfortable living in a world where Madagascar 3 eats its lunch, but here we are. The studio’s four efforts before Cars 2 were arguably the best quartet of any films anywhere from the last half decade. With Cars 2 genuinely failing and now Brave only fitfully making up the difference, we need to ask ourselves if the bloom is really coming off the Pixar rose.