BRAVE is a visual delight that misses at too many key points and doesn't take enough chances.
If there's one studio that's absolutely dominated in the past 15 years, it's Pixar. From their 1995 classic Toy Story to the equally heart-warming Up, the company has taken animation to new levels, pulling gems and instant classics with amazing consistency. While animation is their acumen, their key has always been in strong storytelling: who would have thought that toys, cars, rats, fish, and monsters would have such wide-ranging appeal. It's Pixar singular ability to breathe real emotions into their animated characters that makes everything they touch turn to box office cash. Well, almost everything: that road has recently been pitted with a few critical disappointments: Cars 2 was unappealing and Toy Story 3 was downright creepy (toys holding hands in the fiery hell of a compactor is weird). With the release of BRAVE, the animation juggernaut continues with the fun and visual appeal, but ultimately creates a plot that's too predictable, not exciting enough, and fails to take many chances
The prologue introduces us to Scottish Princess Merida (Kelly McDonald, Harry Potter and The Deathly Hollows, Part 2), a wild and energetic girl who is given a bow & arrow for her birthday by father King Fergus (Billy Connolly, Boondock Saints). Merida's mother Elinor (Emma Thompson, MIB3) doesn't approve, and expects Merida to prepare herself to one day be queen. There's a quick action scene of a huge bear attacking their camp, resulting in the loss of Fergus' leg, but we're suddenly thrust into the present, as Merida learns that she must marry soon to an ineligible suitor. The medieval tomboy won't have it, sneaking away to run wild with her horse Angus, perfect her archery skills, and climb tall rock formations, all to her parent's chagrin. It's this independency which returns often in Brave, and ultimately what dooms Merida and the movie itself. After an argument with her mother, Merida runs away and makes a deal with a Disney-like witch (Julie Walters, Harry Potter series) who promises to change Elinor and thus Merida's fate. But, all of that goes wrong when the spell changes Elinor into a bear, who maintains the queen's heart and mind but leaves her without the capacity to speak. Together, she and Merida must find a way to reverse the spell and keep King Fergus The Bear Killer from accidentally murdering his wife.
There's lots to like about Brave: it is stunningly beautiful, showing off the Scottish Highlands and giving even more life-like movements to our characters. Test audiences viewed the film in 3D, and it too looks incredible. Filmgoers might also enjoy the funny short prior to the feature presentation, and should stay for a mildly entertaining post-credits scene. The soundtrack by Patrick Doyle (Thor) is minimal but filled with nice Scottish melodies, and there are genuinely touching and funny scenes as the clumsy Bear Elinor struggles to walk and carry on in her new body. But in matters of story, Brave suffers too much, missing key chances to meaningfully advance the characters, who come off as caricatures of previous Disney films (Think: Merida asAladdin's Princess Jasmine). There's also lost opportunities to address the theme of women in leadership roles, which Brave leaves on the table even as the film concludes. As the suitor's ships sail away, the only real lesson Merida appears to have learned is that she should not trust witches. There's plenty of time for this 93-minute film to stretch its legs, but it's these theme of change and forgiveness which continues to drag things down, never fully exploring them before bear attacks and other funny moments reappear. Some of this could be blamed on the merry-go-round of directors (Mark Andrews, Brenda Chapman, and Steve Purcell), a recent Pixar trend that should be revisited.
In the end, Brave is a good example of the style-over-substance argument which unfortunately populates most summer films. The plot is easily the flimsiest I've seen from any of the 13 Pixar productions, with the film relying too heavily on action and comedy than addressing its initial interesting premise of the responsibility of women and the relationships between mother and daughter. It's doubtful any of these characters will be remembered a year from now, although Disney will no doubt find a way to keep them marketed beyond the theatrical and home release runs. In this scenario, Brave will be viewed as a failure. Mom and the daughters might find it fun, while Dad and the sons will be looking for the theater playing Avengers. No doubt it will draw large audiences and fill Disney's bank accounts, but with the critical failure of Cars 2, Brave is not good enough to quell insider rumors that Pixar's best creative days might be behind them.
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