Brave is a pretty good movie. In fact, for a Dreamworks or Sony movie, it’s outstanding. However, relative to the Pixar brand, Brave is merely OK, the second worst Pixar effort after last summer’s Cars 2. The irony is that Pixar justified Cars 2 (with all of its unending merchandise opportunities) by saying that it would afford them the opportunity to make more of its usual greatness. With Brave, however, it appears the studio might have lost its magic touch.
Pixar has long since claimed the unmatchable ability to blend technical prowess with storytelling and end up with a product superior to any other in its medium. Until last summer, the studio consistently managed to offer up a commercialized product that not only pleased crowds but delved into deep themes within its family-friendly subject matter. With the studio’s assumed return to superiority in both subject matter and quality, however, Brave falters. It’s a film that you’d expect from Disney but not Pixar. It’s yet another princess story, and while this one presumably contains a twist, it’s not an innovative one. That’s the main problem — Brave lacks the Pixar brand of innovation, choosing instead to explore old, well-worn tropes, which almost defeats the purpose of being the first Pixar film to feature a female protagonist.
Here’s the lowdown: Merida (Kelly Macdonald) is an atypical (and Scottish) princess who craves adventure and doesn’t deign to do the stereotypical girly things expected of princesses. She doesn’t want to be in an arranged marriage or, for that matter, in any marriage at all. She rejects the notion of blindly accepting her life as a “working royal,” and her parents, Fergus (Billy Connolly) and Elinor (Emma Thompson), are beside themselves that with thought that their daughter won’t surrender to the rules of tradition. Worst of all in their eyes, Merida refuses to marry any of the dudes at her disposal — the sons of Lord Dingwall (Robbie Coltrane), Lord MacGuffin (Kevin McKidd), and Lord Macintosh (Craig Ferguson) — and who could blame her? They’re idiots with a single defining characteristic, much like the high school boys in Twilight, whose annoying qualities served to make the audience appreciate just what a swooner dreamboat Edward Cullen was by comparison. Thankfully, Pixar spares us a sparkly vamp (it hasn’t yet fallen that far) and shows us instead what Merida would rather do: Ride horses and shoot arrows.
The obvious advantage with Merida not “needing” a man to complete herself is that her story isn’t reduced to the inevitable Prince Charming nonsense. Instead, Merida’s tale centers around her relationship with her Mom. There’s a lot of potential in the premise, but it comes at the expense of character development. When Merida decides that she’ll not settle for the dreary royal life that is her destiny (and really, it’s strange that she never knew about the arranged marriage aspect until the eve before her planned wedding), she impulsively takes off into the woods and falls into a series of lazy fairy tale clichés. More fatally, Merida inexplicably places a great deal of trust in The Witch (Julie Walters), who gives Merida a spell to “change her fate” by way of changing her mother’s essence. As any audience can predict, the spell does unexpected things that must be fixed; I won’t reveal what actually happens to Merida’s mother (other than to hint at some sort of transformation), except to say that it’s beneath Pixar, too slapstick to permit character growth or allow for heart-tugging pathos.
Despite its unfortunate predicability, Brave is a relatively dark movie, and very small children might be more afraid at certain moments, especially the opening scene where Merida’s father loses a leg to a black bear. Simultaneously, the movie overall skews very young in comparison to the studio’s other movies. Perhaps that accounts for Pixar playing it so conventional in terms of story, but it feels like the filmmakers were afraid to go somewhere with Merida beyond making her willful and stubborn. It’s a shame that the studio had to play it so safe with its first female protagonist, but ultimately, Brave holds its cards too close to its chest to produce anything special or unexpected.
Don’t get me wrong; it’s not a bad movie. In terms of enjoyment, Brave is nearly on par with How to Train Your Dragon as far as adventure is concerned. Sadly, even as Merida overcomes adversity and resists her fate, she doesn’t learn much in the process. In typical Pixar fashion, Brave is a gorgeously rendered picture, but Merida’s hair reflects her defiant personality more than anything she actually does in the story. As far as the cast goes, the voice work is also tops, especially from the Scottish Kelly McDonald, who’s already proven in the past that she’s diverse enough to master a drawling Texas accent in No Country for Old Men. Here, the natural brogue shines, and Thompson and Connelly are likewise easy on the ears. Overall, Brave is an above-average viewing experience, but it’s not up to Pixar snuff.
Agent Bedhead lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She and her little black heart can be found at Celebitchy.