“Brave,” the new film from Disney/Pixar—directed by Mark Andrews, Brenda Chapman and Steve Purcell—is a welcome return for the famed animation studio, which has made some of the best animated films of all time but which, some would say, faced a bit of a misstep with last year’s “Cars 2.” While I agree that “Cars 2” was lesser Pixar and like some many sequels unnecessary, it still didn’t deserve the harsh treatment it received from a number of other critics. Compared to the crop of mainstream animated films from last year, “Cars 2” was hardly the worst.
“Brave” should put Pixar back in critics’ (and audiences’) good graces. It’s a step in a completely new direction for them. It takes place in medieval Scotland, so there’s a lot of talk of Scottish folklore and magic. We get massive, sweeping shots of the beautiful, majestic Scottish landscape, featuring famous landmarks such as the Callanish Standing Stones. Even the music is heavy with bagpipes and tenor drums.
On top of that, “Brave” is the first Pixar movie to feature a female protagonist, named Merida (Kelly McDonald). With flowing, frizzy red hair and sporting a bow and arrow, Merida is brave and resilient. She’d much rather play around in the dirt and explore the forest by herself than have ladylike manners and settle down with a male suitor. She clashes on a daily basis with her mother, Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson), whose views are more traditional. She wants Merida to sit up straight, wear skintight dresses, and find a nice strapping young lad, even if it makes her unhappy.
This angers Merida obviously, so one night she runs away from home and stumbles upon a witch (Julie Walters) who gives her a potion that she thinks will change her mother’s mind. Instead, Elinor is turned into a bear (yes, you read that right), so now Merida must find a way to break the spell before it becomes permanent.
That’s it. That’s the whole story. Very simple, right? In fact it may be too simple. The advertisements for “Brave” make it look like an epic, rousing adventure taking place all over Scotland and for a while it heads in that direction. But ultimately the movie stays confined within and around the castle where Merida lives. Pixar is known for producing movies where the main characters go on quests and run into an array of colorful characters and with “Brave” I couldn’t help wanting more from it. Considering how much the movie makes a fuss about Scottish mythology and folklore there’s not very much in it. And there are a few supporting characters, like Merida’s mischievous triplet younger brothers that are one note and get old shortly.
However, at the same time, for how simple the story is, the film tells it well. As always with Pixar, “Brave” focuses more on developing the central characters and relationships and achieving comic moments out of that, instead of going for easy laughs. And it still comes to an emotional finish that should leave you feeling good. Not surprisingly, the animation is top notch, particularly the facial expressions.
I don’t think “Brave” is quite enough to put Pixar back on the map as the dominant animation studio yet. Studio Ghibli’s “The Secret World of Arrietty” is still the best-animated film of the year so far, but it’s a fine start.