You've got to hand it to Pixar. Year after year, the company has pushed the boundaries of animation, producing films that were both technical marvels and impressive stories in their own right. While it's true the company has never produced a stinker, it has also set a pretty high bar for itself. Just like Blizzard has done with gaming, the Pixar label on a film is something of a seal of quality. Unfortunately, that seal doesn't shine quite as bright when it comes to "Brave."
The latest film from the CGI powerhouse, "Brave" is first and foremost technically impressive. The lush visuals and striking animation prove that the animators working for the Emeryville, Calif., film studio are still at the top of their game. The water, the fog, those flowing red locks of hair on the heroine Merida (Kelly Macdonald) — all are stunning. The fog looks especially good when viewing the film in 3-D, though it's probably not worth paying the 3-D premium just for a single effect.
Music also deserves a nod, as the film incorporates traditional Scottish sounds to craft a soundtrack that always fits what you're seeing on the screen.
With the technical aspects down pat, the issues with "Brave" are more fundamental. Just like a traditional film, the story is a key part of any animated production, and it's here that "Brave" falters. It's not that the story is bad, per se. Rather, what plays out on-screen is just plain average, run-of-the-mill plotting. Knowing what Pixar is capable of producing is bound to make viewers wonder what happened during production.
"Brave" starts off well enough. The story establishes Merida as a strong-willed heroine with authority issues and a villain in the form of the demon bear, Mor'du. There's a side story that highlights some internal strife within the kingdom and Merida's desire to simply escape it all. In short, the first half of the film is a great setup for a strong character story, and it's led by a solid female character (who just happens to be Pixar's first female lead). Then, without warning, this mostly serious tale suddenly turns slapstick.
The foreboding witch with the ambiguous motivation featured in the Brave video game is nothing more than comic relief here. The character in the film isn't written with any sort of malice in mind, nor is she written as an old sage attempting to teach Merida a lesson. No, she's just a random old kook who is seemingly inept at magic of all sorts.
It's that same inept magic that is at the center of the second half of the film. What could have been a personal journey of self-discovery, introspection and character development (think "Cars," "Toy Story" or "WALL-E") is instead simplified down into a spoiled brat who has to learn to appreciate her mother. It's the kind of cookie-cutter plot that's serviceable enough, but it certainly doesn't live up to the Pixar standards. Strip away the beautiful animation, and what you're left with could easily be a Disney Channel movie of the week. Had the film used the plot elements from the Brave video game, it would have ended up as a much stronger product overall.
On the upside, merely average for Pixar is still better than a lot of the stuff that gets pushed out to kids today, so the little ones are sure to enjoy themselves no matter what. The characters are memorable, and despite the plot shortcomings, Merida is an excellent addition to the line of Disney leading ladies. With that said, put Merida head-to-head with any of the existing Disney princesses, and she's likely to kick their ass. She's feisty, red-headed and she can hold her own in a fight.
There is one set of characters that really did need more screen time, though, and those are Merida's younger brothers, the triplets. The mischievous yin to Merida's brave yang, the triplets stole the show every time they were on screen. Their coup de grace moment involves a swan dive and a very ample chest.
Also of note is Billy Connolly's performance as Merida's father, King Fergus. He manages to take a character written as a buffoonish father and adds some well-needed nuance to the role. Though Fergus does make a few mistakes, it's quite obvious that he's driven by a love for his family above all else.
In the end, "Brave" is still an enjoyable way to spend an evening, though it's easily the least impressive entry in Pixar's stable of films. Don't go in expecting a thematic masterpiece, and you won't be disappointed. It sure is pretty, though.
Editor's Note: Want to experience Merida's adventure for yourself? Check out our review of Brave: The Video Game.
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