Pixar's "Brave" is a good movie from a studio we're used to seeing greatness from. The landscapes are as visually dazzling as you would expect, and the characters are vibrant and beaming with mischief. But while "Brave" is a clever family film with the patented Pixar spin, it often feels like an old-fashioned Disney fairy tale that never manages to be as epic as it should be. Though there are plenty of thrills and funny moments that are just about guaranteed to entertain the younger ones, it doesn't ever burst into new territory and crossover for all ages - the way Pixar did so effortlessly with "Finding Nemo," "Toy Story" and others. Still, with its warm-hearted core and visual imagination, "Brave" (unsurprisingly) ends up being one of the best family films that will hit theaters this year.
Thanks in no small part to Mel Gibson, medieval Scotland is assumed to be a land of both beauty and violence, of warring clans and legends that everyone has heard of but no one believes. From the very opening shots, which drift over the lush green Scottish landscape just like Gibson's "Braveheart," this feels like a PG version of a Scotland we've seen before. But even though "Brave" takes place in a familiar cinematic setting, the Pixar animators still fill the screen with new landscapes that seem lifted from a dream. Fog is always loitering about the pristine countryside. Castles sit perilously at the edge of cliff bluffs - near enough to feel the spray of the sea. Waterfalls are so close by you can drink from them. If nothing else, this looks like a time and place that would be worthy of spending your lifetime.
For our heroine, Merida (Kelly Macdonald), the whole countryside is her playground. While she's drilled by her mother to be a proper lady, she's more interested in striking out with her trusty horse Angus for rock climbing excursions and archery practice. By the time she's a willful teenager, Merida can hit a bullseye while riding at full speed, yet she's confined to a boring life that will one day lead to being exactly like her mother. Likely similar to many teenage girls, the very thought of being like her mother is nauseating - even if she is the queen.
Not helping her mother's cause is King Fergus (Billy Connolly), who is regal only in title. Though his dutiful wife Elinor (Emma Thompson) is determined to set a good example, Fergus is a kind, fun-loving brute who isn't exactly concerned with presenting an image befitting of royalty. As daddy's little girl, Merida is able to do almost anything that she pleases. But when other clans bring potential suitors for Merida, her life of frolicking through the forests and pure independence comes to a screeching halt.
After spurning her suitors by embarrassing them in an archery contest, the tension between Merida and her overbearing mother reaches a climax, and Merida runs away to the forest looking for a way out of her fate. Merida soon stumbles upon a crusty old wood carver who also happens to double as a witch, something that at first seems like a dream come true. Fresh from her angry encounter with her mother, a desperate Merida will do just about anything to change her course - including betraying someone who probably doesn't deserve her wrath.
As Merida tries to fix the mess that she's made, "Brave" falls back on familiar Disney themes as the story unfolds, leaving us with a nice, light-hearted movie that has just enough thrilling moments to keep children engaged. We get magical spells, speeches about doing the right thing, characters learning morality lessons, and many other things that have buttered Disney's bread for decades.
But that isn't to say that "Brave" isn't fun. Even with its limitations, "Brave" still shows off a magical world filled with larger-than-life characters that are likely to stick in the memories of kids. King Fergus, though not as funny as he could have been, is still the type of father you'd love to have if you were Merida - loud, exciting, always looking the other way. Writer/director Mark Andrews shows surprising restraint with Queen Elinor, making her much more of a worried mother than the domineering matriarch we're used to seeing. Merida's daringly mischievous little brothers also pop up to provide levity and some of the biggest laughs of the film, and "Brave" also gets some mileage out of an easily scared maid forced to deal with situations way over her head.
More than anything, "Brave" is a victim of its predecessors. Even though "Brave" is an entertaining adventure story of a strong-willed girl trying to determine her fate, it lacks the originality of Pixar's best films, not to mention much of the comedy. Despite a few laughs, some top-tier animation and a few likable characters, "Brave" never seems to come all the way together. If anything, it reinforces how hard it was for Pixar to string together films that resonated equally with both children and adults. With "Brave," we get light but fun family entertainment that most animation studios would be ecstatic with. For Pixar, the bar is simply too high for "Brave" to meet expectations.
by RTT Staff Writer
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