Film Review: Brave

Rip-roaring fairy tale about a Scottish tomboy princess who unwittingly stirs up dark forces is a welcome return to original Pixar fantasy after their recent franchise sequels.

With a sterling roll call of British Isles vocal talent and some of the most lush and limpid animation to be found on screens this year, Pixar’s Brave is a feast for the eyes and ears, if not always the mind. Aimed more squarely at the younger set than many of their more adventurous fantasy outings like Wall-E, it’s a just-clever-enough take on an age-old and very classically Disney setup about a child and parent’s estrangement and rapprochement.
In a remote Scottish kingdom, young princess Merida (Kelly Macdonald of “Boardwalk Empire”) is a headstrong tomboy who prefers pounding through the mist-shrouded forest on her giant Clydesdale and notching arrows into targets than being ladylike. However, the peace of the realm supposedly depends on her following tradition as laid down by her father King Fergus (Billy Connolly) and mother Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson) and marrying a lad from one of three barely friendly clans. After Merida shows up all three of them at a contest to win her hand, the Princess and the Queen’s daughter-mother conflict explodes into open warfare.

What keeps the film from being just another domestic drama is the spell- and legend-haunted setting. Instead of just running away, Merida follows a chain of blue will-o-the-wisps to the cottage of a witch (Julie Walters) who offers a remedy for her problems. Of course, the spell that the witch promised would change Merida’s fate goes Grimm’s on her by turning Elinor into a giant bear—a problem in the household since Fergus lost his leg years ago to another bear that he’s never been able to hunt down.

There isn’t much to explore in the film with Merida and Elinor’s relationship, even though it’s the crux of the whole affair. The screenplay (which appears to be something of a committee effort) crafts their problems as little more than a clashing of wills. It’s certainly a relatable enough problem for audiences, but it’s dealt with in a particularly superficial manner. Once Elinor is transformed into the bear and loses the power of speech, all the pathos rests with her—the blushing discomfort at being without clothes, the embarrassment of her animal appetites and table manners. Merida barely registers as being sorry for what she’s done before starting to joke around. There’s something primal going on with this twist in the story that doesn’t quite register with what’s onscreen.

The film is on stronger footing with the comedy, which it handles in a smoother fashion and less gratingly than many Disney films. Between Merida’s identical-triplet little brothers, Fergus’ jolly-giant antics, and all the bickering clansmen, there’s plenty of Highland Stooges physical humor to go around. In the film’s many roustabout, jostling comedic scenes, Pixar shows a level of character animation that’s more impressive than anything they’ve done before. Although still dealing in clownishly exaggerated features (some of the jagged and goony faces here are mindful of the old British puppet show “Spitting Image”), there’s a new range and depth to the characters' expressions here.

It would be nice to say that that depth extended to the story as well. While it’s a rollicking ride for the most part, with zooming chases through magical forests and zippy knockabout slapstick, and gorgeously animated throughout, Brave doesn’t have the narrative magic it would need to make it a classic. This isn’t to say that every Pixar film needs to be a classic (after two Cars films, that much should be obvious), but somehow “good” just doesn’t seem good enough for them.