Every summer, eager crowds and even-more-eager critics look forward to Pixar’s annual feature. Every year, audiences of all ages waltz into the theater with eyes aglow in anticipation, and by the end of the film, eyes glisten with tears. But last year, that changed. In 2006, Pixar released its last independently produced movie “Cars,” and in 2011, the sequel to that film, “Cars 2” delivered a less-than-stellar product. It wasn’t a horrible film. By no means was “Cars 2” on par with those other lukewarm sequels: “Ice Age 4” or one of the many “Shrek” movies. It was elegantly animated, well cast and had a hilarious bit about the confusing nature of Japanese toiletry. However, it didn’t feel like Pixar. It didn’t have their characteristic touch of emotional depth coupled with original storytelling. While a vast improvement from last year’s offering, the studio’s latest release, “Brave,” only has one of these traits.
The plot behind “Brave” could’ve been lifted from virtually any Disney princess film. There’s the young, rebellious protagonist Merida (voiced by the always lovely Kelly MacDonald) — daughter of Scottish royalty, King Fergus (Billy Connolly) and Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson). Like Belle from “Beauty and the Beast,” she’s a firecracker (with brilliant red tendrils, in case you forgot) who refuses to obey that age-old convention of finding a suitor. Like Ariel of “The Little Mermaid,” she sets out to change her fate. And in the vein of both those films, a magical transformation is involved — which won’t be revealed here — wherein Merida learns a profound lesson about life and everyone ends happily ever after.
Even aside from the borrowed storyline, “Brave” is as close to a typical Disney film as Pixar has been. The verdant landscapes of the Scottish Highlands smack of the lush forests found in 2010’s “Tangled.” The montages are light-hearted and set to pop music, instead of the heart-wrenching ones found in “Toy Story 2” and “Up.” And overall, the direction of the film leans more toward broad comedy and thrilling action rather than subtle moments of character development. Uproarious laughs are found in spades — from scenes of boisterous Scottish men slap-fighting to the hijinks of Merida’s adorable younger brothers. Again, think the tavern scene in “Tangled” or “Beauty and the Beast,” alongside the antics of three ginger Timon and Pumbaas. “Cute” is the word that can best sum “Brave” up, but is that enough?
Just because the film is cute doesn’t mean there aren’t moments of genuine human emotion or innovative style techniques — though they are few and far between. For the first time, Pixar has placed a female in the central role. This isn’t revelatory in its own right, but what makes Pixar’s use of the princess protagonist distinct is their refreshing noninterest in finding her a romantic match. There is no one true love for Merida, no charming, vacuous Prince to win her heart and definitely no overly sentimentalized wedding that wraps up the film. Instead, Merida focuses on family. Conflicted feelings of loyalty, self-interest and childhood nostalgia merge for a more intimate, and probably more realistic, image of the prototypical princess. And yet, the payoff feels weak.
Pixar is at its best when they make epic films centered around simple subjects: be they bugs, monsters or toys. This is why “Brave” is such a frustrating movie. The situation is reversed. The subject should be highly complex (despite its hackneyed Disney influences). The relationship between mothers, daughters and family obligation is the stuff of legend. It’s the execution that is simple and somewhat unsurprising. Save for a few moments of highly stylized slow motion and some luscious, almost Herbal Essences-esque hair-waving scenes, “Brave” races through its 100 minutes with neither a struggle nor complication.
Given that description, it would seem “Brave” was flawless — a perfect, tailor-made Disney film sans any problems. But that’s Disney. What makes Pixar so wonderful and why they have such universal acclaim is their films’ flaws. The characters, their stories, their triumphs and their tragedies all make for some of the most compelling and beautiful films made in recent years. “Brave” is a beautiful film. There is no doubt about that, but, like Merida, “Brave” is a transitional film — between the Pixar we knew and the classic standard of Disney.