Silver Screen: Brave ***
The trouble with setting the bar high is people expect you to keep clearing it.
Pixar Studios' first feature, Toy Story, revolutionized animated family filmmaking. While other production companies struggled to recreate that success, Pixar continued to innovate, creating ever more dazzling hits, one-upping themselves with sequels that actually surpassed the beloved originals, and pushed into audacious territory with bold projects like Wall-E and Ratatouille. Their winning streak was pretty much unparalleled.
So it feels a little mean-spirited to knock their latest effort, Brave, for simply being adequate. But it's difficult to watch such familiar fare knowing the true potential of the Pixar creative minds.
Brave is billed as Pixar's first fairytale, although it fits snugly into the Disney-cartoon mold, with Brothers Grimm-inspired stories on one side and feisty, modern Mulan on the other. The film's heroine, Pixar's first female protagonist, is Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald), a princess in a vaguely Scottish kingdom who's none too thrilled about her parents' plans for her. Custom dictates that her parents, the gregarious King Fergus (Billy Connolly) and prim Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson), will arrange a marriage for her based upon a competition among potential suitors.
Merida takes more after her free-spirited father than her mother; she'd rather be riding across the countryside and shooting her bow than adhering to social decorum. This mother-daughter conflict reaches a boiling point when Merida stumbles upon a witch who promises to make a spell that will change everything about her troubled relationship with Elinor. Merida, having not seen endless iterations of the Faustian bargain, accepts with predictably disastrous consequences.
Brave's original title was The Bear and the Bow, which gives away a bit more about the movie's big twist: The witch turns her mother into a bear. It's a strangely flat, uninspired move rendered all the more dull by incessant forshadowing, as Fergus, having lost a leg to one of the beasts, is an avowed bear slayer, and the witch's shop is filled with hundreds of bear-related trinkets. Thus transforming Elinor into a bear is both creatively bereft and way too on the nose.
The back half the film is a lot of pseudo-comic flailing about as Merida continually tries to hide/communicate with her transformed mother, now an anthropomorphic bruin, leading up to a climax you could see coming a mile away, even through the dense haze of digitally approximated Scottish highland fog.
What certainly is inspired about Brave is the aesthetic. It's as beautiful a movie as Pixar has made, with lush, astonishingly intricate backgrounds whose depth is wonderfully enhanced by 3D. Animators used to work magic with sets and talking animals but stumble when trying to recreate human movement and emotions digitally, but they've found a perfect balance of cartoonish characters in hyper-realistic settings, reminiscent of Hergé's Tintin comics. Merida's more stylized facial expressions coupled with her hyper-detailed mound of flame-red curls are the ideal blend of realism and fantasy.
But alas, Brave is beautifully adorned mediocrity. The story is too familiar, the action too tepid, the jokes too few and far between. Creator and original director Brenda Chapman was fired from the project midway and replaced with Mark Andrews; tough to tell if Chapman's original vision was more novel and got Disneyfied in the name of marketability, or if the crux of the story is simply overly familiar.
The target demographic of pre-teens, tweens, and tots won't notice. Brave is more than competent and certain to satisfy its primary viewership, but the real magic of Pixar has been to transcend demography and appeal to every segment of the potential audience without any of the films losing their individuality. As such, Brave feels like a bit of a letdown, and with the marketing blitz already in place for a 3D retrofitted Finding Nemo and a sequel to Monsters, Inc. (to say nothing of last year's terrible Cars II), Pixar seems to be settling rather than stretching.