by Delon Villanueva
Pixar is at a weird point in their history of filmmaking. In 2011, Cars 2 was released and was met with very disappointing reviews, saying it was an unnecessary sequel to Pixar’s ‘worst’ movie, and it just a run-of-the-mill cartoon. It felt like a case of Pixar selling out, although John Lasseter expressed much creative passion for the film. Though it also seemed like a rare case that wouldn’t repeat itself, as Pixar’s next film would be Brave, their first female-driven movie and fairy tale. The movie had ambition to break traditions within the studio, much like its heroine (which I will get to in the plot summary). It has had a very interesting path to completion, too. The film was originally called The Bear and the Bow, with Pixar’s first female director and Reese Witherspoon as the voice of Merida. That all changed when director Brenda Chapman left the project due to creative differences (and then replaced by Mark Andrews) and Reese Witherspoon dropped out because of scheduling conflicts (Kelly Macdonald took the job instead). All these changes also lead to the movie’s title change to Brave. Now, these rearrangements weren’t something to worry about, as Pixar has gained the audience’s trust, Cars 2 put aside. Even though fairy tales are quite unfamiliar to Pixar, they always manage to end up great in breaking new grounds. In Brave, Pixar’s complex storytelling is missing, but it still has its heart in the right place.
The movie tells the story of Merida, a Scottish princess who struggles under the parenting of her mother, Queen Elinor, voiced by Emma Thompson. Queen Elinor strictly trains her into becoming a ladylike princess, but frowns upon her tomboyish personality. It doesn’t get much better when Merida realizes that three young men, representing their own clans, will be fighting for her hand in matrimony. Merida’s disapproval for this results in a fiery dispute between her and the Queen, which convinces her to seek out a way to change her fate. Merida finds a wicked witch, played by Julie Walters, that gives her a spell to do such a thing, but just like any wicked spell, there are consequences to be paid. The plot sets up a lot of promise for an epic adventure, but this is where the movie misses the mark. The big twist of Brave isn’t exactly as grand as it wants it to be, or at least, it doesn’t interpret it like it is. For a spell that puts many people in danger, the movie takes it very humorously for some reason. The first act builds up to so much intensity, that you would think Merida is more trouble than she thinks. Although she is in a big predicament, the movie plays it for easy laughs, almost to the point that it’s cringeworthy. Now don’t get me wrong, there some funny sight gags, but there are also some that show up at inappropriate times, and some that are just way too juvenile and crass for a Pixar movie. It almost felt like watching a Dreamworks Animation movie at some points. All this humor doesn’t make room for emotional development, and by the time this surprisingly short movie ends, the sad moments don’t feel completely earned, and are predictable instead. Still, this movie has way more depth, in its portrayal of Merida and the Queen’s relationship, than most family films out there, so credit is given where it’s due. Pixar just made a tad too many mistakes in the story department than usual.
Even though the story progression is disappointing, Pixar has still made a very beautiful animated picture. Technology continues to advance, and so do their movies. There’s no doubt that Scotland and its colorful characters look great here, so at least we know that Pixar is able to master these elements in this movie. Pixar has created their own unique fairy tale environment, taking from many influences without ripping them off. Yes, it’s a weaker story this time around, but Pixar’s symbolism is still there and it works well as always. The studio also has rounded up another all-star voice cast. Kelly Macdonald is great as Merida (makes me also wonder why in the world they wanted Reese Witherspoon for her), giving her strong, independent nature. Emma Thompson provides a powerful, striking voice to Queen Elinor, and Billy Connolly is very funny as King Fergus. Kevin McKidd, Craig Ferguson, and Robbie Coltrane (Hagrid!) play the three lords that put their sons to fight for Merida’s hand, and add a lot of humor to their characters, but they are not nearly as hilarious as Merida’s triplet brothers. If the comedy and drama were more balanced, the three boys would have had an even better presence in the movie. Pixar is still capable of creating fleshed out characters and settings; if only the story could carry it.
Now, don’t take this as a negative review: it’s a good movie. Though I have to be very critical on Pixar. The studio makes nearly perfect movies each time they release one, and they knew what they were doing when creating Brave. Though by its final act, it just didn’t add up the way it wanted to. It makes me wonder why Brenda Chapman left the movie, as maybe she had a darker version of the story, and Pixar wanted it to be more lighthearted. There’s nothing wrong with that, but Brave ended up way too goofy than it should have. Even though families will enjoy it very much, sophisticated audiences will be wanting more. There’s plenty of things to like in this movie, but not much to love. It’s just too safe and harmless for a Pixar movie. I know I make it sound like a letdown, but it’s only because we have such high expectations for the studio, so they still have made something worthwhile. Brave is an entertaining animated feature with a touching message on the love between a mother and a daughter, if only they went deeper.