Gorgeous ‘Brave’ Connects While Not Matching Pixar Standard

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HollywoodChicago.com Oscarman rating: 3.5/5.0
Rating: 3.5/5.0

CHICAGO – Pixar’s 13th film has been lauded as a major first for the company – the inaugural adventure aimed squarely at young females. Luckily, there’s nothing here that diminishes that goal in any way. “Brave” features a strong, well-designed, interesting heroine, perfectly voiced by Kelly Macdonald, and it doesn’t pander to its demographic, proving that girls can play with the big boys while also giving them a fable of their own. Beautiful character/environment design and spectacular voice work keep “Brave” a notch above much of the animated competition even if a straightforward story and lack of personality make this one of Pixar’s least accomplished screenplays.

Princess Merida (Macdonald) is the rebellious daughter of Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson) and King Fergus (Billy Connolly), a fiery redhead who refuses to bundle up her hair like her conformist mother. When will Merida settle down? When will she stop bringing bows to the dinner table and start acting like a “lady”? Perhaps a husband can settle her down and Elinor and Fergus bring in three semi-suitable suitors to win the young girl’s heart.

Photo credit: Disney

Of course, Merida is too good for any of the Scottish stereotypes who try to win her heart and flees the castle after winning an archery competition. She runs into the woods and finds herself in a mystical ring of stones where some will-o-the-wisps guide her to an important figure in her fate – a wood-carving witch (Julie Walters) who gives her a spell baked into a cake that’s designed to “change” her mother. Merida clearly hasn’t yet learned that when a witch tells you someone will “change,” you should take her seriously.

The rest of “Brave” is a good-natured tale about how we learn what’s important to us. It’s a turning point in any young person’s life – and it often doesn’t come until they’re parents themselves – when they discover that their parents aren’t perfect. They’re trying to do what they think is best. And, at its core, “Brave” is not a story of a defiant daughter or an overbearing mother but a parent and child who come closer to a deeper understanding of each other’s needs through what is basically a Scottish fable.

Photo credit: Disney

Sadly, the fable aspect of “Brave” is its least successful and most underdeveloped. The film had a notoriously tumultuous behind-the-scenes process (three directors and four writers are credited, never a good sign) and the second and third acts feel somewhat cluttered and unfocused. The opening half hour (which is what the trailers have consisted of almost entirely) is a beauty on every level – storytelling, voice work, visually – but it’s easy to start to lose interest in the narrative once one realizes that this is not quite the transcendent script that we’ve come to expect from Pixar or that it could have been with the great set-up. I was with “Brave” through its running time but the genius of Pixar has been how often its best writers could twist a classic story into something completely different. In no way is “Brave” completely different. One of its creators told me in an interview that you could take the fable elements and drop them right into Scottish lore and I have to say that I’m not sure that’s a good thing. “Brave” could have been more than just another Scottish fable, especially when one compares it to not just Pixar but “How to Train Your Dragon,” a film that took similar themes and delivered something that felt far more original.

Whatever narrative flaws one finds in “Brave” are off-set by the remarkable technical accomplishments of the film. It’s stunningly beautiful, finding a storytelling aspect to the natural world that is too often missing from feature films. Most of the critics I know who don’t like the film saw it in 3D and I saw it in one less dimension. I wonder if that’s not the way to go since I was more entranced by the visuals. Yes, kids, believe it or not, sometimes 3D can take something pretty and make it look like a gimmick.

Photo credit: Disney

I also think that what Macdonald and Thompson bring to the entire experience can’t be under-valued. Macdonald finds the perfect balance of adolescence and growing womanhood. Merida is a SPECTACULAR character and I think the flaws of the storytelling are amplified mostly because one wishes she had been given a more interesting narrative in which to play.

“Brave” comes at a turning point in Pixar’s filmography. They’re coming off their biggest disappointment (“Cars 2”) and not only facing articles that wonder if the other creative shoe has dropped but delivering an audience their first non-sequel in three years. Add that to the fact that it’s being billed as an “important film” for young girls and it feels like all of this pressure led to something common in the creative world but something we’ve rarely seen from Pixar – playing it safe. It’s too well-made and enjoyable to dismiss but these are the kinds of moderated praise that we haven’t often had to use in terms of Pixar. If only the studio had found the courage to deliver a great adventure instead one that’s merely good.

“Brave” features voice work by Kelly Macdonald, Emma Thompson, Billy Connolly, Robbie Coltrane, Craig Ferguson, Kevin McKidd, and Julie Walters. It was written by Mark Andrews, Brenda Chapman, Steve Purcell, and Irene Mecchi and directed by Andrews and Chapman and Purcell. It opens on June 22, 2012 and is rated PG.

HollywoodChicago.com content director Brian Tallerico

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