Coming off the disappointment of Cars 2, Pixar’s Brave isn’t exactly a return to form for the studio, but it is a solid-enough effort in its own right that (hopefully) indicates things are headed back in the right direction. But while Pixar used to have a stranglehold over the Best Animated Film Oscar, 2012 should represent the second straight year the company is out of contention (favorites so far: the beautifully-animated stop-motion features The Pirates! and Paranorman).
Mixing a medieval Scottish atmosphere with a kind of Game of Thrones vibe (the leading character shares a good deal in common with Arya Stark – though the film was well into production before the HBO series gained popularity), Brave has a lot of fun playing with its genre and setting stereotypes, and it doesn’t hold back. Parents of younger children take note: the film can get surprisingly dark and intense, particularly during a climactic bear attack.
The Arya Stark character is young princess Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald), tomboyish daughter of King Fergus (Billy Connolly) and Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson). When it comes time for Merida to become betrothed, the princess isn’t having any of it (at least, not after seeing her pathetic would-be suitors); she high-tails it into the forest, cursing her mother for forcing her to go through with the charade.
In the forest, some sprites lead her to a witch’s hut. In return for her golden pendant, the witch (Julie Walters) gives Merida a magical potion that will help “change her mother’s mind.” It does more than that, however: it turns poor old mom into a bear, and the target of a hunt at the castle, led by the King, who lost his leg to a bear years ago.
While you might expect a role-reversal romance from Brave, or a girl-power save-the-kingdom adventure, the rest of the movie is simply about mother and daughter repairing their relationship (and turning mom back into a human). Which is fine, as far as it goes, but vaguely…insufficient.
With Pixar directors Brad Bird (The Incredibles, Ratatouille) and Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo, WALL-E) moving to the live-action realm (Mission: Impossible 4 and John Carter, respectively), the company has had to recruit new talent.
Brenda Chapman (The Prince of Egypt, who left mid-production over “creative differences”) and Mark Andrews (making his feature debut) have the technical prowess to make Brave work, if not the inventiveness and heart that made previous Pixar features so special.
Ultimately, Brave feels less like an original Pixar film and more like a traditional Disney fairy tale a la Tangled (though we’re thankfully spared the obnoxious pop culture panderings and forgettable songs). On that level, the film works just fine; going into this one expecting something akin to past Pixar greats such as Ratatouille or WALL-E, however, will result in disappointment.
Brave is presented in 3D, which is adequate but adds nothing of note to the experience.
Note: don’t miss “La Luna”, the charming short that precedes the feature, and stick around after the credits for one final gag.