PIXAR hit a bit of a stumble last summer with their sequel to Cars but are attempting to redeem themselves with their latest offering this weekend, Brave. Billed as a the first PIXAR film to have a female heroine Brave works in presenting a positive message of family and femininity but stumbles in the overall narrative. Dragging in parts as it tries to find its focus; Brave is a strong leap in terms of animation but ends up a moderate affair in the PIXAR canon.
Princess Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald) dreams of changing her fate and finding a way to live without having to get married. Her traditional mother Queen Elinor (voiced by Emma Thompson) wishes Merida would listen and understand that the role of a princess ends in marriage. When Merida makes a wish it ends up leading to dire consequences for her mother. With time running short Merida will have to find a way to set things right and reunite with her mother.
PIXAR never skips when it comes to animation and Brave possesses some of the most beautiful scenery and set pieces of any film they’ve put out. The landscapes are epic and at times I believed I was watching a live action film, even when the animated characters were walking around. Where the company has advanced the most is in the human characters. The level of intricacy in the costuming, down to the beading on Merida’s dress, can be seen by audiences in the back room and everything pops out. What has to be the highlight, and could garner them some type of award in the future, is in the work on Merida’s flaming red hair. It’s so complex in the different curls, the way it moves, even the colors (there’s so many different shades of red and orange). It makes the wet hair effects in The Incredibles look outdated, and that’s saying something. The script is cleverly written with a dearth of one-liners and a lot of cutesy images.
The voice acting is spectacular and again probably the best assembled. I’ve been a champion of Kelly Macdonald for awhile and she shines as Merida. Merida isn’t a whiner but a strong young woman. Her relationship with her mother, equally well-voiced by Emma Thompson, is fleshed-out and complex. It feels like the screenwriters did some serious research in mother/daughter dynamics. The fact that the two women are so similar, they just have a problem with listening to each other, comes through expertly throughout the film’s length. Billy Connelly also stands out as Merida’s father Fergus. He’s a man trying to please both women and for the most part understands neither of them.
The biggest issue with Brave is it doesn’t know whose story it is. Sure Merida is the heroine heavily featured on the posters and marketing but this isn’t truly her story. If you’re assuming this is a tale about a young woman trying to prevent a marriage that’s not the case. The film is a mother/daughter adventure movie on par with Freaky Friday (if Freaky Friday was darker and involved animal transformation). The bond having to be restored to the two takes precedence over most of the runtime but there’s a good portion devoted to Elinor realizing life outside of being a queen. In many ways this is Elinor’s tale as well and seems to suffer from the same issues as Disney’s Princess and the Frog in that they don’t convincingly sell the animal character. I was never bored but I did start to wonder whose story we were meant to identify with and if you’re not a mother it’s hard to side with Elinor.
I enjoyed Brave but I didn’t love it which saddens me. This is a strong debut for a female heroine in the PIXAR canon but the story is muddied and doesn’t find its footing. The voice cast and animation is great but I don’t see Brave being exalted next to UP or the Toy Story films. It’s a great movie, it’s just not exceptional.