Brave (***)


For those who worried that ‘Cars 2’ was the start of some sort of Pixar slump, you can rest easy, as ‘Brave’ is a return to form for the studio. That being said, this is definitely not on par with their creative heights (‘WALL-E’, the ‘Toy Story’ trilogy, etc), and contains a few flaws. At its core, ‘Brave’ is a somewhat standard Disney Princess fairy tale re-imagined through the Pixar filter. Simply told and rather old fashioned, this is something new and old at the same time. I can’t say that I was entranced by it like I’ve been by the company’s work in the past (I actually think it has more in common with ‘How To Train Your Dragon’ in a lot of ways than anything else), but their animation continues to be unparalleled. I’d argue that this may even be the best looking animated film to date. I’d preferred if it had been a bit more of a complete meal, as it were, but in terms of pure entertainment there’s not too much to complain about here. Featuring strong voice work, this does fill the Pixar tradition of having an appeal to not just children, but adults too. Young girls may be the top target here, but everyone should be able to have a good time. It’s not a classic, but it’s the best animated film of the year so far and the frontrunner for the Best Animated Feature Oscar. The film opens next week and you should expect a solid outing from Pixar.

In short, this adventure tale follows the spunky Princess Merida (voice of Kelly Macdonald) and her desire to forge her own path in life. Ever since her father King Fergus (voice of Billy Connolly) gave her a bow for her birthday as a young child, she’s been more interested in action, adventure, and freedom, as opposed to preparing to choose a male suitor, as her mother Queen Elinor (voice of Emma Thompson) would prefer. Merida has more in common with her father and her 3 troublemaking brothers than with her ladylike mother. She can’t stop the inevitable however, and soon a contest is staged for her potential husband. When the rival clans arrive, led by Lord MacGuffin (voice of Kevin McKidd), Lord Dingwall (voice of Robbie Coltrane), and Lord Macintosh (voice of Craig Ferguson), along with their sons, she thwarts their efforts and wins the contest herself (it’s archery). Frustrated, she seeks out a witch hoping to bring about a new custom and has a spell cast that changes everything. I won’t get into exactly what happens, as the promotional material has thankfully avoided it completely (and it’s potentially divisive), but suffice to say it involves chaos, a curse, and of course…bravery. It’s not groundbreaking in any way, but perhaps it’s unfair to expect that from Pixar every time out.

The voice acting is among the very best in any Pixar film to date. Kelly Macdonald fits in wonderfully within the pantheon of Disney Princesses, giving Merida life and a whole heck of a lot of passion. You really get the enthusiasm of the character through Macdonald’s performance. She’s the best in the cast, but everyone else pulls their weight. Billy Connolly is a bit goofy, while Emma Thompson has perhaps the hardest task to pull off (and I can’t exactly say what without spoiling things)…they both make it feel right though, a credit to their voice talents. The other voices are fine, if underused, and in addition to the likes of Robbie Coltrane, Craig Ferguson, and Kevin McKidd, we also have Julie Walters and of course John Ratzenberger to round out the cast. They’re all uniformly good, with Macdonald especially so.

Of course any animated film is a group effort, and at Pixar it’s often a company-wide effort, and ‘Brave’ is no exception. Co-writers/co-directors Mark Andrews, Brenda Chapman, and Steve Purcell gives this flick the feel of an adventure movie. Their direction is crisp and makes use of some of the best visuals I’ve ever seen in an animated film. The texture and details is bother staggering and downright gorgeous. That alone is an achievement worth noting (even the 3D is solid, with nothing flying at your face or anything of that nature). I’d be slightly more complimentary of their work if it wasn’t for the fact that the film has a disjointed quality to it. The first half and the second half are two very different animals, and I’m not alone in liking one part more than the other (though I seem to be among the few that actually prefer the more surprising events of the 2nd and 3rd acts). The script that they all wrote along with Irene Mecchi is the culprit, as it feels like a few ideas jammed together. This is the rare Pixar film where the screenplay is a weakness, and here it keeps this movie from being anything more than just good. They’re never overtly homaging the classic Disney Princess flicks, instead forging their own path (not unlike their protagonist), which is admirable…the effectiveness is just a bit more mixed than usual.

I don’t have any huge complaints about ‘Brave’ other than the fact that it’s “lesser Pixar”, if such a thing now exists. This is now their 13th film, and I’d rank it somewhere in the middle (gun to my head, I rank them as such: ‘Toy Story 3’, ‘WALL-E’, ‘Toy Story’, ‘Up’, ‘The Incredibles’, ‘Toy Story 2’, ‘Finding Nemo’, ‘Monsters, Inc.’, ‘Brave’, ‘Ratatouille’, ‘Cars’, ‘A Bug’s Life’, and ‘Cars 2’, though this can change at any time). There’s lots to like, and very little not to like…the thing is, there’s nothing to go nuts over, and that makes it feel like more of a step down for the studio than it really is. For the visuals alone, this is worth seeing, but the voice acting and overall quality are reason enough for me to wholeheartedly recommend ‘Brave’ with this early review. Don’t go expecting a masterpiece (or likely a Best Picture nominee) and simply go in expecting to be entertained. That’s the best recipe for success here. Unless you hate animation, you’re likely to enjoy ‘Brave’ for what it is when the movie opens next week…

Thoughts? Discuss on the Forum!