Since “Toy Story” exploded on the scene in 1995 (wow, almost 20 years ago now), Pixar has been largely made of Teflon.
Everything has received critical and consumer acclaim, raking in truckloads of money and awards alike. Eight nominations and six wins of 11 Best Animated Feature Oscars belong to Pixar, and “Brave” is the studio’s 13th film. That means half of their films were judged as the best of their kind since the award’s inception). Even their missteps are smothered in praise.
Viewed strictly as a film, “Brave” is a weak affair lacking narrative cohesion. In fact, I’d go so far as to say it seems to suffer from the same malady that could have torpedoed “Men in Black III,” but didn’t, for whatever reason: the story was a mishmash of themes and loosely strung-together plot points that takes a strange narrative turn and almost becomes an altogether different movie.
“Brave” follows Merida (voice of Kelly MacDonald), a headstrong, tomboyish Scottish princess spoiled and doted over by her father, King Fergus (Billy Connolly), and misunderstood by her mother, Elinor (Emma Thompson).
When the king and queen announce that, in keeping with custom, Merida is to be married off to a neighboring clan, she rebels, preferring her carefree life of riding her horse and practicing archery to one of subservience to some dunderheaded clod she’s never even met.
Her hesitance threatens the fragile peace between her clan and the others, and war could break out if she refuses. She does, humiliating her three suitors in an archery competition.
Then a witch turns her mother into a bear, and we forget all about these silly themes of individuality versus tradition and have a good-old-fashioned princess-saves-the-day story, as Merida chases the witch down in an effort to reverse the spell.
Visually, Merida is a great character, with a bright red shock of curly hair that seems to look simultaneously unkempt and meticulously placed; large, striking green eyes; and a somewhat full-figured body type that, while not overweight, doesn’t conform to Barbie stereotypes. She has a rightful place among Disney’s other heroines, if only the movie were worthy of her.
The story is hers and hers alone, and the rest of the cast is supporting characters; Elinor wants her daughter to be more traditional, her father dotes on and is supportive of her, but ignores her at key points when it serves the plot; and she has three little brothers, triplets, who exist strictly to be cute.
But there are a few key ingredients missing. First among them is a villain; ostensibly “Brave” doesn’t have one, at least not a flesh-and-blood character. You could say Elinor is an antagonist to a degree, but there is no direct villain for Merida to overcome. It’s chiefly an internal struggle, which is interesting in theory for a children’s film, but there are some problems in its execution.
Second, there is no real love interest, which is, honestly, a bit refreshing, but is also a little jarring. There are would-be suitors, of course, but they’re all painted as clowns, and the implication is that Merida’s family is more important to her than a life partner or any kind.
There is humor, but it’s mostly of the lazy slapstick variety — people running into walls, up-kilt flashes and things of that sort. There are few, if any, truly clever bits.
“Brave” feels like two fine animated films mashed together, with nary a narrative thread to be had. Yes, there is early conflict between Merida and her parents, but that is quickly dashed when Mom becomes a bear.
Yet Merida’s pluckiness lifts the film, and her brashness, not to mention her skill with a bow and arrow, makes her easily the most entertaining thing about the movie.
It’s also interesting to see mother-daughter strife as opposed to the more cliched father-daughter arguments, though you could argue the dad is portrayed as stupid and subservient to his wife despite his billowing bluster.
“Brave” seems an odd choice for a title considering Merida’s courage isn’t really tested. Yes, there are intense action sequences and a couple involving bears that are even scary, but she is never forced to confront these challenges alone; her mother is constantly with her, and they are mostly running away from her father and his cronies, who can be dangerous but are largely painted as clumsy, well-meaning oxen.
It’s unfortunate that “Brave” is so schizophrenic. There’s a couple of really memorable movies in there. It just feels like Pixar decided halfway through to stop making one and start the other.