It’s unreasonable to expect Pixar to put out an animated classic every year. To keep up a standard of excellence as good as Wall-E, Up and Toy Story 3 would be near impossible and last year, the seemingly infallible studio had its first bust with Cars 2. The film, while fast paced and colorful, was missing the character relationships that were so strong in its predecessor. It was missing the emotion and the humanity (yes, there was humanity in those machines). For the first time, Pixar made a bad movie. It’s too early to tell if that was the beginning of the end of quality entertainment from the studio, but judging from their newest release, Brave, that doesn’t seem to be the case. Brave isn’t amazing and when compared to Pixar’s other 12 full length releases, it’s closer to the bottom than it is to the top, but at least it’s good and it offers some substance to complement its gorgeous visuals.
The film follows the young Princess Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald) as she approaches her betrothal. For her entire life, her mother, Queen Elinor (voiced by Emma Thompson), has prepared her for this moment, where young men from competing kingdoms will compete for her hand in marriage. The problem is Merida doesn’t want to get married. She wants to be free, able to ride the countryside on her horse and practice her archery as she sees fit. Prim and proper isn’t her way of approaching life, so to avoid marriage, she buys a spell from a witch in the nearby woods. The spell is meant to change her mother so she won’t feel it necessary to force Merida into marriage, but the spell instead changes her into a bear. This threatens her safety as her father, King Fergus (voiced by Billy Connolly), is an avid bear hunter and has been ever since a mysterious bear took his leg years ago. Furthermore, two sunrises from now, her mother will be changed forever, so she must hurry if she wishes to break the spell.
What was sorely missing so much in Cars 2 is central to Brave. This isn’t about dazzle; it’s about human relationships—more specifically, mother-daughter relationships—and the bond the two eternally have. It’s about listening and trying to understand each other even when you disagree. It’s a simple message to be sure, but it’s one that speaks to both children and parents that highlights the importance of love and understanding. The theme is presented perhaps a bit too on-the-nose, however, considering that after Queen Elinor is turned into a bear all she can do is listen. The movie doesn’t set up a scenario where the characters discuss how they feel about the situation. It instead thrusts them into a situation where one is forced to hear the other out. The script obviously had a thematic goal in mind, but it doesn’t seem to know how to get there without literal interpretations. The script is anything but subtle and as far as writing goes, when isolated from the movies they represent, Brave is one of Pixar’s weakest.
The writers don’t even take the time to map out a proper villain, instead throwing in another spellbound human in a similar situation as Queen Elinor to make things a bit more dangerous and further enforce its theme of mother-daughter love as forcefully as possible. Where they succeed is in the creation of Merida’s little brothers, identical triplets named Harris, Hubert and Hamish. They don’t speak a word the entire movie, but they’re easily the best characters in it. They’re energetic, mischievous and very funny and the antics they pull off, both for their own benefit and to help out their family, are endlessly amusing. Their rascally behavior usually means pranking others, which leads to enough slapstick to fill a Kevin James movie, but it’s harmless in its approach and provides the biggest laughs.
But the feeling of disappointment lingers on. A movie as good as this one would be a delight if coming from another studio, but Pixar is capable of so much more. Nevertheless, this is a step in the right direction. If Cars 2 was three steps back, Brave is two steps forward. It doesn’t come close to matching the brilliance of their best, but it’s also a far cry from mediocrity. Some people lost some faith in the studio last year and Brave won’t completely restore it, but it will give them cause for optimism that Pixar hasn’t lost their touch. They’re just saving it for something special.
Brave receives 3.5/5