It’s great to see that (7 years after the two studios joined) Brave brings together the computer-generated artistry of Pixar with the fairytale storytelling of Disney. While it’s the first Pixar movie with a strong female lead, Disney has been producing “princess” tales for years. The story of young Merida, princess to the Scottish kingdom of DunBroch, who wants to be free from the rules of her role and the enforcer of those rules — her mother, Queen Elinor — is an original tale created by the filmmakers, but there are clearly echoes to many other stories and movies past. Ariel (from The Little Mermaid) felt misunderstood and stifled by her father, King Triton, and she wanted escape to the surface world. Similarly, Merida also wants freedom from being a princess (and the visiting clans who’ve brought their sons to be her suitors) and seeks (like Ariel) the magical aid of a local witch. Of course, with magic there’s always a price and Merida soon finds herself in more trouble than she wished for.
Kelly Macdonald brings her appropriately Scottish voice to the role of Merida and does a pretty good job of going toe-to-toe with Emma Thompson (who’s a bit less Scottish) as Elinor. Mother and daughter have a classic relationship where Elinor spends her time and energy trying to teach Merida the proper behaviour of a Scottish princess when Merida would rather be romping through the woods and shooting arrows from horseback. Her father is King Fergus (played by Scottish comedian Billy Connolly). Fergus is similarly conflicted: he plays the dutiful husband and lord of DunBroch, but would prefer the passion and excitement of battle over the refinement and restraint of politics any day. Rounding out the Brit/Scot cast includes the lords of the other three clans: Kevin McKidd (from Grey’s Anatomy) as Lord MacGuffin, Craig Ferguson (late night talk show host and comedian) as Lord Macintosh, and Robbie Coltrane (Hagrid from the Harry Potter series ) as Lord Dingwall; finally, Julie Walters (Mrs. Weasley from the Harry Potter series) makes a memorable voice appearance as the batty old crone. Such a personality-filled cast also helps feature Pixar’s skills with animating expressions. From Merida’s eye-rolling teenage bemusement to Fergus’s hearty blustering, the characters’ face and body language are all full of life. There’s even a great scene where Elinor cannot speak (for reasons that would be spoilers) and the animators wonderfully captured her attempts both at mouthing words (unsuccessful) as well as pantomime (much better).
Along with the small details that make for good animation, Pixar has also excelled at the big scenes and the vistas. The Scottish countryside with its lakes and trees and mountains, looks verdant and lush. Repeatedly Merida rides through thick forest on horseback and those scenes are not only fluid and exciting, but you can almost feel the coolness of the wind rushing by. (Of course, the vibrant and majestic score from Scottish composer Patrick Doyle adds sweet icing to the cake.) I’m constantly amazed by the state of computer animation these days. Animated features never fail to include some amazing visuals as par for the course. Pixar, of course, is top of the leaderboard in this respect.
All that being said, Brave was still a bit disappointing. To be fair, the expectations on Pixar to produce something beyond-excellent is very high. Not only do we expect flawless animation, but also creative and imaginative storytelling. Once they enter the Disney wheelhouse and follow a somewhat predictable fairytale template, some of that originality goes out the window. Ironically, they didn’t fully commit to the Disney model either. Unlike Tangled (the CG princess tale produced by Disney’s own animation studio) there were no musical numbers, no animal friends (not exactly anyway), and no real villain either (unlike Ursula from The Little Mermaid, this witch has no agenda except to be a good magical service provider). Most of the conflict comes from a failure to communicate and Fergus’s mad-on to kill bears. Even the title seems overwrought, since bravery is not really much of a theme in this movie. In the end, it seems like too much was compromised in this merger of the Pixar and Disney styles. I was missing some of the wow-factor that I want from Pixar. What’s more, this is the first Pixar movie in several years that wasn’t a sequel of one of their earlier films. This was the first one where they could show off their skills on a new set of characters and a new, pre-medieval, fantasy context. Perhaps they were too far our of their element. In any case, Pixar producers and their team of writer-directors still deserve credit for a well-made movie. If Brave had been produced by any other studio, we’d all be raising our ale-glasses in throaty cheers for their success. However, when it seems like the creative quality of a top-notch studio is not quite where it has been for so long, it’s a little bit worrisome, and a little bit sad. Hopefully their next feature (which sees us back with Sully and Mike Wazowski in the Monsters Inc. prequel, Monsters University) will have Pixar back on track. (4 out of 5)
Like all Pixar features, Brave came with a short animated feature as an opening act. La Luna was a wordlessly imaginative story of a young boy and two older men (father? uncle?) who row out on a lake to look at the very large, bright moon. Then they actually walk on the moon (which is apparently lit by glowing glass stars). These three guys have a job to do, and it’s a sweet little story with a bit of a visual punchline regarding that job. It’s just the kind of visual storytelling that is great for these kinds of animated shorts.