In the past what Pixar has done well is taken complex characters and injected them into fairly simple stories. FINDING NEMO is about a dad trying to connect with his son, with a series of marine life rife with flaws and idiosyncrasies elevating it above the type of dumbed-down fare that would insult the overall intelligence of its audience in lesser hands. UP is about an old man making up for lost time. I could go on and on about the simple theme that make up the Pixar catalog, but for such basic tales, it’s been the unique perspective from which they’re being told and the attention to detail that has turned a number of films from the brand into instant classics that capture the imagination. But what happens when you flip the formula on what Pixar has been doing right for all these years? What happens when you replace complex characters with simple ones and simple stories with complex ones? You get BRAVE.
That’s not to say that BRAVE is a bad film. Quite the contrary, BRAVE is very good, but it is far from the greatness we’ve come to expect every time Pixar rolls out another motion picture (with the exception of the CARS flicks). Is that fair to hold that against a movie that any other studio would kill to have on its slate? Probably not, but that’s what happens when you establish and maintain a certain standard of excellence and then fail to meet it every so often. BRAVE isn’t the next Pixar classic, and, while it does aim to pull off some pretty bold things, the film’s meandering plot prevents it from reaching that upper echelon. Simply put, BRAVE doesn’t quite know what story it wants to tell until the third act, and, by then, you’re more confused than curious that when it does choose its path, your emotional investment is pretty weak.
The film is built around the long, wavy red locks of Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald), a Scottish princess who doesn’t really quite want to be a princess. She’s far more comfortable adventuring on horseback, armed with her bow and arrow than she is fulfilling her princess-ly duties. While she longs for the freedom to make her own choices, as any teenager would, she’s heavily controlled by her mother, Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson), who is doing her best to craft a the best possible Queen-to-be, even if it means following far too closely in her image. Merida is a lot like her impulsive father, King Fergus (Billy Connolly), but good luck to her if she thinks she’ll have a fate more in line with the patriarch of her family. That won’t stop her from trying though. When it comes time for three Lords of neighboring families to present their first-born in the hopes of winning Merida’s hand in arranged marriage, the princess elects to take matters into her own hands and change the outlook that awaits her.
As you can tell just from that rundown, we’re examining ideas of fate and destiny, of the pressures and complications of a mother/daughter relationship, about respect for tradition, about independence, about female empowerment… all of which take the lead at various points throughout the film in the race to figure out what BRAVE is ultimately about. But the film is never quite capable of juggling each of them collectively, coming across more as a muddled mess at times, feeling as if it’s lost its way with no real idea how to get back on course.
As BRAVE tries to navigate its way through its self-inflicted plot web, other areas really shine in Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman’s film. First off, this is a beautiful looking film and might easily rank as Pixar’s greatest visual accomplishment to date. Whether it’s the gorgeous sweeping looks of the Scottish highlands, including a stunning waterfall, or the unique character design, BRAVE doesn’t fail to deliver on the visual level. The animation is top notch, as evidenced by the most impressive shot of an arrow being fired off its bow in slow motion being viewed so closely that you can see the wobble of the wood as it takes flight. As far as stand-out characters, the mischievous triplet brothers of Merida serve as an extraneous but scene-stealing bit of comic relief in an otherwise very serious film (think the toddler version of HARRY POTTER’s Weasley twins, but as a trio) and the three marriage suitors of the MacGuffin, Macintosh and Dingwall families all possessing a unique flair. Even the free-flowing hair of the princess takes on a life of its own due to the technical skill of the crew involved with BRAVE.
But what BRAVE really is missing is that Pixar magic. What does that mean? I’m not quite sure how to describe it, but it really is one of those things that you know it when you see it… and a bit disappointingly, BRAVE just doesn’t have it. Something feels like it’s missing throughout, and the film just never seemed to connect with me on an emotional level. While it is an impressive feat technically, BRAVE’s main shortcoming comes at the hands of its lack of focused story. I don’t need to know exactly where things are going, and I certainly don’t want a film that feels entirely predictable, but trying to venture off in all different directions doesn’t quite work either. BRAVE suffers from its inability to choose a path and stick to it, and, as a result, winds up as a good film that was capable of being so much more.
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