The plot – involving a wicked witch, an endangered parent and a race to reverse a spell – is decidedly oxidized. Even the young girl’s unruly mane is the color of rust. But the animation is pure state of the art.
If you dare call yourself “Brave,” you’d better be willing to take some risks, which the latest entry from Disney’s Pixar Studio regrettably isn’t willing to do. It’s slavishly old-fashioned right down to making the heroine a teenage princess like in so many Disney movies before. And the plot – involving a wicked witch, an endangered parent and a race to reverse a spell – is decidedly oxidized. Even the young girl’s unruly mane is the color of rust. But the animation is pure state of the art. It’s by far “Brave’s” most bankable asset, saving the movie from a fate worse than “Cars 2.”
In fact, you’ll be so busy marveling at the technology behind the gorgeous Scottish Highland backgrounds and the finely detailed features on the bears, horses and people in front of it, that you might not notice the pedestrian nature of the story. Well, at least you won’t at first. But as the movie grinds on, adults may catch their minds beginning to wander. Kids, however, will love every second of it, particularly if they’ve never seen a Disney princess movie before. With its array of buffoonish adult characters, impish children and nearly non-stop action, “Brave” is most assuredly kid-friendly. And you couldn’t ask for a better role model than Merida (voice of Kelly Macdonald), the young Scottish princess with the long flaming-red hair and a proficiency in archery that makes Katniss from “The Huger Games” look like an amateur.
You thoroughly enjoy spending time with her early on, watching her scale mountains and race atop her trusted steed during respites from getting to know her gregarious, bear-hunting dad, King Fergus (voice of Billy Connolly), her blanketing mother, the persnickety Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson), and her mischievous triplet brothers, who also are adorned with Day-Glo ginger manes. The humor is sharp, and in the case of a kilted Scot flashing a fellow tribal leader, cheeky. Then the film’s quartet of writers, including co-directors Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman (both first-timers), begin taking one rote turn after another, beginning with that old standby, the arranged marriage. Like every princess since time began, Merida wants to pick her own husband in her own time, thus creating a widening rift with her tradition-adherent mother. And before you can say hocus-pocus, Merida, has conveniently befriended a wit … wit … wood carver (a hilarious Julie Walters) with a long nose and boiling caldron in her enchanted shop located just past the Stonehenge-like rocks deep in the dark forest. Merida offers the old hag a valuable amulet in exchange for a spell that will change her destiny and free her from her mother’s tyranny. But true to the old adage, she should be careful what she wishes for, thus setting the stage for a hectic, intermittently entertaining race to reverse the spell and restore peace to the divided kingdom.
Despite the script’s shortcomings and increasingly annoying musical interludes sung by lilting Scottish lass, Julie Fowlis, you wind up with a surprisingly large emotional investment in the characters, which include King Fergus’ rival lords, Macintosh (Craig Ferguson), Dingwall (Robbie Coltrane) and MacGuffin (Kevin McKidd), and their sons, who have first dibs on Merida’s hand. But with so much talent involved, it’s hard to dismiss the feeling that “Brave” should have been much better than it is. And did we really need yet another warrior princess with Mommy issues in the wake of “Snow White and the Huntsman” and “Mirror Mirror”? Even absent those other flicks, “Brave” would still lack the “Pixar” panache that enabled classics like “Up,” “WALL-E” and “Finding Nemo” to completely outclass the competition. “Brave” doesn’t even belong in the same breath with those pictures. If anything, it feels more like a warmed-over remake of DreamWorks’ “How to Train Your Dragon,” substituting a friendly bear for a docile, fire-breathing reptile. “Brave’s” failures can no doubt be traced directly to the studio’s decision to switch directors midstream, sending Chapman (Pixar’s first female helmer) to the showers in favor of Andrews. Not only does the change smack of sexism, it flies directly in the face of “Brave’s” overstated advocacy for female empowerment.
Worse, the weak narrative wastes some of the best Pixar aesthetics ever, as the studio’s computer geeks have created a 3-D feast for the eyes. The textures are richer, the actions of the people and animals more fluid, and the environs more realistic. But the biggest triumph is the rendering of Merida’s bursting waterfall of luxurious, bright red hair. It’s truly a marvel of movement. But you can’t help assuming more effort was expelled slaving over Merida’s locks than locking up a discombobulated script that, in keeping with the film’s overriding theme, is a real bear.
BRAVE (PG for some scary action and rude humor.) Featuring the voices of Kelly Macdonald, Emma Thompson and Billy Connolly. Co-directed by Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman. 2.5 stars out of 4.