BRIEF SYNOPSIS: When free-spirited princess and archer Merida learns that she must choose a suitor, she seeks the counsel of a witch to change her fate.
PROS: Beautiful renderings of the Scottish Highlands as well as exceptionally realized animated characters; good vocal casting; a vibrant score by Patrick Doyle; intriguing fairy tale and fantasy elements…
CONS: …that never really go anywhere; too much time spent in DunBroch Castle; uneven drama that runs out of steam as the movie approaches its conclusion; use of 3D largely unnecessary.
At first glance Brave, the newest animated feature from Pixar, finally embraces the elements of fairy tale and high fantasy that seemed the exclusive purview of its distributor Walt Disney. And, not surprisingly, it stuns with its beauty and sound. When Princess Merida (Kelly Macdonald) rides to the top of a waterfall amid the swell of Patrick Boyle’s energetic score, the film overwhelms with the promise epic adventure along the lines of its parent studio’s illustrious predecessors. The glowing Will o’ the Wisps she follows into a darkened forest to the home of a witch (Julie Walters) who could help her change her fate all harken back to Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Sleeping Beauty, and other classic Disney fare infused with the Burkean beautiful and sublime. Even her triplet brothers Harris, Hubert, and Hamish possess the boisterous energy of the fairy godmothers in Cinderella.
A shame, then, that Brave’s emotion and interest never match its physical beauty, and that the grand scope at its beginning squeezes its focus into a small family drama. Meant as Merida’s bildungsroman with the theme of forging one’s own path, it dampens its action and ambition by embracing traditional verities of family and responsibility, hobbling her full maturation. Like Merida’s remarkable red locks, it yearns to flow wildly but finds itself clipped by its own tale. Brenda Chapman’s story seems like it wants to be much stronger, but the addition of three screenwriters (Mark Andrew, Steve Purcell, and Irene Mecchi) dilute its potency and, alas, its depth. It is one of the few Pixar movies in which the subtext could be measured with shallow coffee spoons.
What of the text itself? Princess Merida is an archer who, when three different clans present their sons to compete for her hand, suggests an archery challenge to determine her would-be suitor. It’s a ruse, of course, for the sons of Lords Macintosh, MacGuffin, and Dingwall all lack her skill with a bow and arrow, to say nothing of her intelligence and charm: she shoots all three targets herself, much to the displeasure of her mother Elinor (Emma Thompson). When Merida rips part of a tapestry depicting their family, Elinor throws Merida’s bow into a fireplace, sending Merida from her family’s castle and into a forest, where she follows a trail of Will O’ the Wisps, which, according to legend, are said to lead one’s fate. There she encounters a witch who provides her with a tart to give to her mother. Elinor of course eats the tart, transforming her into a bear…and her father Fergus’s (Billy Connolly) key antagonist; he loses his leg to a bear at the beginning of the movie. So of course Merida must find the witch in order to reverse the spell before it becomes permanent.
Although Chapman builds the foundation of the story from sound material, Brave feels as if directors Andrews, Purcell, and Chapman herself built the structure out of balsa wood. For all of the potential depths it could plumb, it chooses instead to splash in the familial shallows of psychodrama. While it provides some amusing moments (mostly at the hands of Merida’s small brothers), its dialogue never attains the rapid-fire wit of The Incredibles or Monsters, Inc. and its subject matter never offers the pop-culture allusions of the Toy Story trilogy or Ratatouille. Even a good old-fashioned Scottish brawl never shows the vigor it should. What Brave wants, ultimately, is to let Merida grow in to the great warrioress she seems destined to become; what it gets, however, is something far more traditional, and far less interesting.
As with all Pixar features, an animated short precedes Brave. This one is titled La Luna, and it tells the story of a young boy who is brought into his family’s business: scraping stars off the moon. Like Brave, it is a trifle, but never outstays its welcome.