Disney Pixar’s Brave is the powerhouse studio’s first non-sequel since 2009, and a marked improvement over Cars 2 (their first legitimately bad endeavour). Though it features some of the most exquisite animation ever put to film, it falls short of the benchmark set by the peerless triptych of Ratatouille, WALL-E, and Up released at the end of the last decade. In fact, it may only place above the Cars instalments if we were to rank their movies from one to thirteen. But we are talking about Pixar here. A disappointment from them is a one that doesn’t propel you backwards to the halcyon days of your youth – a’la Anton Ego in Ratatouille - and leave you blubbering with tears of joy. On its own merits, Brave is perfectly pleasant.
The silky-voiced Scot Kelly Macdonald gives life to Princess Merida, the redhead daughter of King Fergus (Billy Connolly) and Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson). Around the turn of the 10th century, her parents promise to marry her off to one of the sons to the kingdom’s three lords (Kevin McKidd, Craig Ferguson, Robbie Coltrane). The suitors are, expectedly, not at all suitable for Merida’s hand. Never mind that she’s not ready for marriage anyway; she would much rather ride her steed in the highlands and practice her archery. Her controlling mother insists she adhere to tradition and pick a husband, upholding the shaky truce between the lords in the process. Tempestuous Merida bolts to the woods in a fit of anger, and happens upon a witch who promises to change her fate. When the dust from the spell settles, Merida discovers she’s put everyone at risk, and even awoken the fabled demon bear that once terrorised their land and claimed her father’s leg.
Much of the plot has been kept from the marketing materials, so Brave does manage to provide a few surprises along the way. It recalls the classic Disney animated features The Sword and the Stone, The Black Cauldron, and The Fox and the Hound (that the picture was originally titled The Bear and the Bow implies the similarities are intentional). This is certainly a more folkloric tale than the studio usually produces, and though it’s an interesting change of pace, the whole experience does feel a little stale. Those timeless landmarks are tough to live up to, and Brave isn’t entirely up to the task; the witch here is totally unremarkable, the dual climaxes (one action-packed, the other emotional) not so resonant, and the machinations of the plot feel a little forced even for a fairy-tale.
The premise also bears (geddit?) a striking resemblance to both DreamWorks’ How to Train Your Dragon as well as the Oscar nominated The Secret of Kells (which also featured fantastical elements such as sprites and wisps). This is no claim of plagiarism; merely a declaration of dissatisfaction that much of Brave feels very familiar. It is welcome to see a Pixar feature with a female protagonist for once, and a rich, wild one like Merida at that. The film’s finest moments involve the mother-daughter relationship, which rings true even in the more supernatural second half; it’s a nice counterpoint to the father-son bond in Finding Nemo, if never quite as powerful.
Originally conceived by Brenda Chapman, she shares a writing credit with Mark Andrews, Steve Purcell, and Irene Mecchi. Chapman was set to be the lone director, but the reins were handed over to Andrews for unspecified reasons. Perhaps she had to go work on another project; perhaps the studio wanted to take the film in another direction (as they did when they replaced Jan Pinkava with Brad Bird on Ratatouille). This is not the place to speculate on behind the scenes drama, however. I only mention the changing of the guard because, unlike most other Pixar works, this one feels like it has too many chefs. It’s their scariest by far, yet it’s also the least appealing for adults. It seems to come to an end before it ever really begins, and the final act’s poignant punch never really lands (something that can’t be said of their other pieces).
Brave is gorgeous to behold, and Macdonald’s voice work is some of the best in the studio’s history. Pixar are still head and shoulders above the pack, but usually I have far much more to say about their films, and feel inspired, emotional, and reinvigorated by their unequalled talents at creating breathtaking works of art on a massive, blockbuster scale. That is not the case here.
Brave arrives in Australian cinemas June 21, 2012.