An enjoyable cast of talented voice artists supported by sumptuous animation design and visuals highlight Pixar’s venture into the Scots highlands, but BRAVE plays out as a timid, less original tale than most produced in Disney/Pixar’s lengthy string of hits. Not that such storytelling timidity will impact this film’s box office take over the summer with family audiences, but older audience members who enjoy watching Pixar draw and digitize the cutting edge of feature animation may find BRAVE landing short of that mark of innovation.
Typical of an animated coming-of-age film by now, the young princess Merida (enlivened by the wonderful voice of Kelly Macdonald) is born into Scottish royalty and grows up longing for the freedom of choice her position disallows due to ancient tradition. She’d rather be at adventurous play, adroitly firing the archery bow given by her father, chasing will-o’-the-wisps into a spooky yet inviting forest, and in short pursuing her own less than princess-like ambitions. Who can blame her? This is already a familiar dramatic landscape for Disney/Pixar young women, but the exotic, rustic, kilt-filled Scots setting still promised an exotic take on the plot with battles against a legendary wild bear and Merida’s fight to change her destiny.
Where BRAVE stumbles a bit is fulfilling those promises, where the villainous bear threatening the collective clans disappears for much of the film due to a familiar plot twist, and Merida’s fight to define her own fate rests solely in the hands of a forest-bound witch who throws a wrench into the young girl’s aspirations. The bear twist bears too much resemblance to Disney’s uber-classic BEAUTY AND THE BEAST for reasons we’ll leave untold here, though likely audiences will see this plot point coming three moors away long before the twist hits the fan. And Merida’s magical attempt to steer her own destiny via the witch makes her quite the done-to heroine, constantly reacting to and compensating for outside actions by others rather than leading the story herself. This isn’t to say Merida’s personal battle isn’t effective and mostly entertaining, but it’s clearly a defensive battle that is emotionally less satisfying than would be a more dynamic character.
A stellar voice cast led by Macdonald, always superb Emma Thompson as Merida’s royal mother Elinor, the irrepressible Billy Connolly as King Fergus, and Julie Walters as the spellbinding witch, all keep BRAVE rolling forward with delightful brogues and a satisfying emotional range of broad comedy to sorrowful heartbreak. Robbie Coltrane of HARRY POTTER fame, affable Scots talker Craig Ferguson and Kevin McKidd (HBO’s ROME) also round out the clans with great delight. Directors Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman along with co-director Steve Purcell all hit the story notes well, even if you’ve heard them played better before BRAVE. But that’s a lot of directors for one animated feature, which may explain some of the film’s unevenness from start to finish as moments of wonder and daring excitement coexist with flatter passages that sometimes lag behind an audience hip to where the story is headed.
Earning the bear’s share of production kudos in this Pixar production are directors of photography Robert Anderson (camera) and Danielle Feinberg (lighting) along with the many concept, background and animation artists who filled BRAVE with unique touches of atmosphere, landscapes and a view-in-motion of this Scottish realm that truly stands apart from other films. Viewing BRAVE in 3D may enhance the grandeur and spectacle at hand, but the format cannot outshine the artistic merit exhibited here which needs only two dimensions to envelop viewers’ eyes and interest to wander in this world. Patrick Doyle‘s authentic and enjoyable original score fits the film’s moods like a Celtic glove, though the two original songs — Touch the Sky and Into the Open Air — likely will not remain as memorable as past Disney/Pixar toon tunes.
Put simply, BRAVE is good and upholds Pixar’s unfaltering tradition of animated excellence, but it falls short of greatness on its own familiar, classics-revisited merits. FilmEdge has BRAVE hitting the three-stars ring on the target but landing just wide of a true bullseye.