Beautifully animated, Pixar’s first female protagonist lacks a clear antagonist, and struggles to find the right pace for its first steps into princess territory.
Since Disney bought Pixar back in 2006, the pioneers in digital animation have done a fantastic job in maintaining their own identity, and with the exception of the Cars films, have continued their flawless record for producing entertainment that delights all ages. Yet one area they have never matched Disney with is the creation female leads, something the House of Mouse has been interested in since their very first films. The Princess and the Frog and Tangled, Disney’s two most recent original creations, have delivered strong female roles, and Pixar is making a very conscious statement with Brave. Ironically, it winds up feeling like an imitator of the Disney style, rather than an industry leader.
Brave‘s screenplay comes with a good pedigree, and includes co-directors Mark Andrews (Spider-man), Brenda Chapman (Beauty and the Beast), Irene Mecchi (The Lion King) and the off-beat Steve Purcell (Sam & Max) added for good measure. From this team comes Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald), a young Scottish princess who has always been more interested in archery than her royal obligations. Her father, the mighty bear fighting King Fergus (Billy Connolly), encourages this boisterousness, but her mother Elinor (Emma Thompson) struggles to get her to behave like a “proper lady”. When the various leaders of the kingdom compete for Merida’s hand in marriage, she takes grasps her own fate, and ultimately unleashes a curse that literally threatens to change the destiny of everyone.
What is immediately striking for most of Brave is its glacial pacing, and this less-than-frenetic speed is change in direction for the typically rapid-fire medium. Much of this comes from the lack of a clear antagonist for Merida, short of her own pride and the legend of a largely unseen bear. Merida herself is vastly underwritten, an amalgam of rebellious teen with little more than plaintive cries of “Mum!” every few minutes. She serves as the story’s central figure, but commands little more presence than simply being the character who appears most frequently. Indeed, much of the first act feels more like a pilot for a television series, setting up a series of characters that don’t pay off later.
The introduction of Merida’s toddler triplet siblings adds little to the thin story, short of a series of food related gags that signal a series of short films that will inevitably turn up on one of Disney’s other outlets. That many of these people are actually Scottish clichés, particularly the various chieftains and their sons being reduced to a series of kilt jokes and “wee nekked babies”, simply adds insult to injury. The disappointment of this slow setup continues as the second half of the film is rushed to a conclusion, aping Disney’s own Tangled and more specifically the lesser-seen Brother Bear (2003) in the process. Indeed, it could be argued that Brave owes as much to that film as it does Scottish legend.
Yet this is undoubtedly one of the most beautifully animated Pixar films to date, and it will be easy to overlook many of the plot deficiencies for the gaping holes that all the jaw-dropping will induce. Every film seems to push the boundaries of a particular set of animated physics, and with Brave it is human hair that’s been taken to the next level. The effortless movement of the characters is far more naturalistic than we have ever seen before, and Scotland’s landscapes have provided inspiration for stunning backdrops that rival any other to date.
At its heart, and there is still a great deal of it in Brave, Pixar tackles the mother-daughter relationship reasonably well in the final acts. However, it is far too little too late, having never properly established Merida in the first place. For all of this family friendliness, this might also be one of Pixar’s scariest films to date, especially as bears clash is a wordless brawl that sidelines everybody else. Brave is by no means a low-point for Pixar, but despite legitimate rivals in DreamWorks and Disney itself, it feels like their most complacent effort to date.