Most of the reviews for “Brave” have resorted to a bunch of vaguely backhanded compliments, referring to this gorgeous fairy tale as “not top-tier Pixar” like anything not on par with “Finding Nemo” is a grave disappointment. The frequent comparisons to Disney likewise seem to me a lazy exercise in Spot the Differences: “look, it’s a princess, but this time her hair is RED!” Before Pixar became the One Animation Studio to Rule Them All, let’s not forget that the House of Mouse gave us “Aladdin,” “The Lion King,” “101 Dalmatians,” “Fantasia,” and dozens more classics besides. Is there even truly a difference between a Pixar and a Disney film?
I would remind you that Disney owns Pixar, so legally, no. But the Pixar brand has certainly built up a strong reputation based on the studio’s penchant for familiar, archetypical stories built on wildly original characters and unexpected scenarios. Toss in some of the most visually appealing computer animation ever conceived, and there certainly seems to be a theme going. But Disney is apparently where princesses live, so a Pixar film featuring a princess must be relegated to the soulless commercial wasteland. To the Barbie aisle with you, young Merida!
That’s a shame, especially since Merida herself, the energetic, self-confident young heroine of “Brave,” would so dearly despise being clumped with the likes of Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty. A princess of the Scottish highlands she may be, but she will not spend the film chattering pleasantly with woodland creatures and dreamily singing “Someday My Prince Will Come” out a tower window. She’d rather explore the wild countryside on her horse, practice her archery and generally enjoy her precious FREEDOM.
I write that word in all caps because Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald) constantly spews it out like she’s about to give birth to William Wallace. Her mother Elinor (Emma Thompson) has plans to marry Merida off to one of the sons of their kingdom’s loyal clansmen, but Merida decries the loss of her FREEDOM. If the plot of “Brave” suffers from over-simplification, it’s the distillation of Merida’s motivation to this one buzzword – besides “not getting married right now,” Merida doesn’t seem to have any other desires for her valuable FREEDOM. Admittedly, it’s unclear whether this vaguely defined FREEEEEEDOOOOOM comes from weak screenwriting or mere youthful directionless-ness. As a fresh college graduate, can I honestly say that I have better plans for my approaching adult life than riding through the glen with the wind in my hair shooting arrows off into the sunset? No, I cannot.
That brings us to Merida’s second-favorite word: FATE. Looking for a way to change her FATE and keep her FREEDOM, young Merida is led by mysterious blue totally not-creepy woodland sprites to the hidden cottage of a Witch (Julie Walters), a highly entertaining mix of Miracle Max from “The Princess Bride” and Richard Dreyfuss from “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” if Richard Dreyfuss in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” really liked bears instead of mountains. From the Witch, Merida receives a spell that she is assured will change her FATE. This might be one moment where Merida could take some advice from her Disney predecessors.
To go on further would, I think, ruin the delight to be had in this brisk, economical narrative, told with the typical good humor we’ve come to expect from Pixar. Helmed by a gaggle of first-time feature directors (Mark Andrews, Steve Purcell, and Pixar’s first female director, Brenda Chapman, who also receives primary story credit), “Brave” might stay relatively conservative when it comes to the story, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing: my few beefs with films like “WALL-E” and “The Incredibles” could’ve been solved with a stricter editor. “Brave” is one of the breeziest 100 minutes you’ll ever have, thanks to the engaging (if FATEful FREEDOM-filled) plot and seriously some of the most beautiful computer-generated imagery ever put on film.
Besides Macdonald and Thompson, who perform quite admirably despite being saddled with the burden of being the only earnest characters in the whole film, the standout is Billy Connolly, the Scottish comedian who voices Merida’s peg-leg father, Fergus. If there’s any evidence that this is not a classic Disney film, it’s the gender role reversal going on between Fergus and Elinor – Fergus is hilarious and tender despite his gruff exterior, but little more than a pawn in this story. There are some amusing antics involving Fergus and his trio of brethren-in-arms, clan nobles voiced with aplomb by Robbie Coltrane, Craig Ferguson and Kevin McKidd. Their sons are anti-Prince Charmings: petulant, weak, unintelligible. The heart of the film lies, not with gallant, dashing young men, but in the tug-of-war of the mother-daughter relationship (as if the fact that Elinor lives longer than the first five minutes isn’t enough to make this something of a revisionist fairy tale).
Indeed, amid all the rabid Pixar/Disney debate, it’s astonished me that I haven’t heard anyone make what is, to me at least, the slightly more appropriate comparison for “Brave” to a more female-centric animation studio: that is, Hayao Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli. Sure, if you want to argue over tiers and rankings, I would not put “Brave” alongside Miyazaki’s best efforts, but surely light, visual feasts with spunky heroines like “Kiki’s Delivery Service” or “The Secret World of Arrietty” have been just as worthy of our attention and acclaim. Maybe “Brave” fits in more with those films than “Up,” but is there anything wrong with that?
Now playing in theaters.
Verdict: 3 1/2 out of 4 stars*
*Breakdown of star ranking: 3 stars out of 4 for “Brave” itself, bumped up half a star simply for the presence of “La Luna,” Pixar’s best short film since “Geri’s Game.” “La Luna” is infused with a child-like wonder and beauty that is seriously not to be missed. Don’t show up late to the theater. Seriously, how could you skip this face: