The team of geniuses (there’s no other term to describe them and given that Apple once owned the company, it’s doubly appropriate) over at Pixar have shown a remarkable knack for annually producing one of the finest animated films ever made. Each movie dives into new subject matter connected only by the Pixar house promise of intelligent, emotionally involving, action packed, and funny entertainment geared to any an all audiences. The formula has worked so far, which each fresh Pixar product feeling like their greatest achievement. At least that was true until last year’s Cars 2, a quite dreary comedy focused on Larry The Cable Guy that felt more like a $200 million plus advertisement for a new line of Cars merchandise than an actual movie. There were concerns that Disney’s new partnership with Pixar forced their hand into feeding their merchandise wing and how that might affect future films. The fact that the follow up movie Brave was a princess tale that dipped into Disney’s most beloved and overused playbook seemed like it could be another watered down house of mouse co-production. Thankfully, we can all breath a sigh of relief on that one. Though it starts conventionally, Brave practically goes out of its way to avoid standard cartoon princess clichés in a move that might not set a new standard for the company, but definitely delivers everything that we’ve come to expect from a Pixar picture.
Kelly MacDonald stars as Merida, a 10th century Scottish princess who in the opening scene is given a bow and arrow by her father Fergus (Billy Connolly) much to the dismay of her mother Elinor (Emma Thompson). Flash forward a few years and Merida has grown into a wild independent spirit and archery champion. Elinor invites rival clans to present Merida with a marriage suitor in accordance with tradition, but Merida despises the idea and the idiots who arrive. She shows up all of the suitors in an archery competition and flees, causing strife amongst the clan leaders (hilariously voiced by Robbie Coltrane, Kevin McKidd, and Craig Ferguson) that only a mountain of ale and food from Fergus can cure. Merida runs off into the woods where she encounters a witch who offers the princess a spell that will change her mother’s mind. Unfortunately that spell turns Elinor into a bear that all the Scotsmen instantly want to rip apart. So mother and daughter must run and hide while trying to break the spell that will become permanent in a few short hours.
Brave is the closest the inspired Pixar folks have come to creating a traditional fairy tale and that’s by no means a bad thing. The film has the magical twist and strong moral core expected from the genre, but enlivens the material without relying on the stream of self-conscious pop culture gags that have ruined big screen fairy tales since Shrek. Pixar is far more earnest in their approach and create genuinely emotionally devastating scenes amongst the daughter and bear mother (who gradually becomes more animalistic) that shouldn’t be possible. They somehow find a way to make the transformation goofy fun, yet emotionally real. That’s because like all Pixar joints, Brave is a character piece more than anything else, defined by heartfelt and hilarious turns from the voice actors as well incredible exaggerated, yet credible human character designs from the animators. Co-director Mark Andrews background in storyboarding action scenes for films like Spiderman and cartoons like Samurai Jack ensure that the action can be thrilling while the jokes hit with a surprisingly high success rate. He juggles a great number of competing characters and subplots admirably, giving every character their due and never wasting a moment of screentime as the movie barrels towards a conclusion that ties together everything in a richly satisfying way.
As a work of summer movie entertainment, you’ll be hard pressed to find any movie better to hide out in a theater with your family during the sweaty months. Brave does everything that should be expected from high end entertainment, providing extraordinary spectacle (the lush, grand Scottish landscapes represent yet another technical breakthrough for Pixar), relatable characters, a swiftly moving narrative machine, resonant themes, hilarious comic relief, joyful vocal performances, and a climax that will draw tears without feeling manipulative. In short, Pixar have returned to doing what they do best. Granted, it might not have the same spirit of wild invention of say The Incredibles, Ratatouille, or Wall-E, but it shouldn’t.
Brave is very deliberately a traditionally told fantasy tale set in a culture of rich oral traditions that is filled with such fables. That CGI/writing wizards created something that feels like it belongs with similar stories passed through generations is a remarkable achievement in and of itself. Disney hasn’t even been able to make their fairy tale princess stories work over the last decade (Tangled, The Princess And The Frog, etc.) and they should be thrilled to be partnered up with a company capable of crafting the kind of intelligent and elegant family entertainment that made Walt’s legacy. Let’s just hope they leave Pixar alone, because that team of artists clearly work best when creating a new vision rather than returning to the sequel well.
Well, it is a Pixar movie, so pretty well everything.
It's not instantly the best film or most ambitious film that Pixar has ever made, which we've come to expect after they managed to somehow top themselves annually throughout the 2000s.