Brave exhibits a trait uncommon to other movies in the Pixar canon. It’s boring.
The Bear Necessities
At its core, Brave is stock Disney storytelling dressed up with Pixar majesty. It’s a dull, standard tale beautifully rendered and detailed right on down to the imperfect stitching of the characters’ hard-worn clothes.
Merida (Kelly Macdonald, Intermission) is a fiery young redhead who wants to shirk her duties as a princess and bride-in-waiting for the tomboy life. Her expertise lies in equestrians and archery, not the fineries of too-tight dresses and subservience. Alas, her mum, Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson, Men In Black 3), sees things differently and even her humungous (as in super-duper-over-the-top-sized) father (Billy Connolly, Gulliver’s Travels) quivers in his kilt when she shoots him an icy glare.
What’s a girl to do?
Well, it’s the age of sprites and fairies, or at least this movie’s version of such things. Wisps, little Tinkerbell-like creatures, flit through the forest and, as legend has it, lead you to your fate.
Upon encountering the wisps, Merida is led to a crafty ol’ witch, one who sunlights as a highly-skilled woodworker. The witch supplies Merida with a spell that’s sure to change her fate. Sadly, though, it’s not a simple potion that, once imbibed by the queen, leads to a world of rainbows and unicorns.
No. This spell turns Queen Elinor into a bear, quite literally. And it just so happens the king lost his leg to a bear in a legendary battle several years prior.
Poor Merida. Her hard life just got a whole lot harder.
How to Train Your Daughter
There isn’t all that much bravery in Brave.
A sinking feeling sets in upon realizing the story revolves around turning Bear Elinor back into Queen Elinor. Sure, there are huge doses of lessons learned about family, love, fate, and free will. But as far as telling a tale of a girl finding inner strength, Snow White and the Huntsman does it better, and – surprisingly – much more fancifully.
Brave’s ho-hum story is by Brenda Chapman, who also worked on the stories of old-school animated fare from Disney’s renaissance period, Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King. They’re two immensely popular movies, for sure, but less than innovative purely in terms of story. Granted, she also worked on Chicken Run and Cars, but each of those involved massive teams of 15-16 writers in varying capacities.
And Merida lives in an unnecessarily ho-hum Scotland. Allusions to the scenery of Loch Ness (sans sea monsters) and Isle of Lewis (sans mummers) make for some eye-catching moments that at times achieve an incredible sense of photorealism, but this is a Pixar-animated world that feels grounded and dutiful instead of raw and untethered.
The witch offers much-needed wit and fun, but the bulk of the movie feels like a How to Train Your Dragon also-ran, without the benefit of a single dragon.
The Hunger Pangs
Given the witch and wisps are as fanciful as it gets, things are far off from where the material could have and should have gone.
Ultimately, this is a case of Pixar being weighed down by its own unprecedented track record of success.
Pixar movies are known for their inventiveness, in terms of both immaculate presentation and clever, heartfelt storytelling. But chinks in the armor started to appear last year with the release of Cars 2. A mildly entertaining effort, its spy story barely won out over putting Mater – Pixar’s Jar Jar Binks – in the starring role.
Now it’s clear Pixar is run by mere mortals.
There are fleeting scenes of almost-greatness, such as the witch’s boiling cauldron equivalent to an answering machine – for this option, pour in the blue potion; for that option, pour in the green potion. Her den of wooden bric-a-brac offers some visual whimsy, as do Merida’s three infant brothers. They’re tiny mischief-makers who manage to steal a couple scenes, but when the storyteller’s sound asleep, that’s an easy thing to do.