It's something of a back-handed compliment to Pixar that their latest offering, Brave, is not being lauded so lavishly as most of their other films. The worst thing I can say about it is that it's no worse than the best computer animated films coming out of other studios currently and a good deal better than the average. It just doesn't quite live up to Pixar's standards for reasons that, I fear, could easily have been fixed.
The plot is relatively straightforward—Merrida (Kelly Macdonald) is princess and heir to the throne of an unnamed kingdom that is maintained with a sometimes fragile truce between four clans. Her life is made up about six parts of royal training applied by her mother, Elinor (Emma Thompson) to one part letting her roguish side out—her father, Fergus (Billy Connolly) has passed on his love for fighting and the hunt to his daughter, and she is quite an archer and fighter for a teenaged girl. But these activities go against her mother's plan for her, to become the doting queen to the scions of one of the clans, thus keeping their kingdom together for another generation. But all of this is just high-falutin' political talk: Merrida wants to ride her trusty horse Angus over the countryside and her mother wants her to stay home to be a lady. And wouldn't you know it?—they bump heads. And after one final argument, Merrida rides off into the night, accidentally discovering a witch's cottage, where she asks for a spell to change her mother so that she'll understand. And you know witches, literal as the dickens when it suits them, so Elinor is changed but in a way that Merrida could never have expected. So of course it comes down to Merrida to save her mother.
There is a tremendous amount of joy in this movie—it's pretty clear to any viewer that this family is brilliantly balanced and that Merrida is an exceptional child. And the denouement of the movie is probably as you would expect; with the help of her three little brothers, Merrida learns what it means to be a member of the family and to appreciate what her mother is doing for her. And of course, Elinor learns that her daughter is her own person, in need of guidance, not domination. In many ways, if you imagine Uncle Buck set in the Scottish highlands, you'd have much the same film.
And therein lays the problem. Pixar's movies are generally very smart, rising above the clichés that dominate movies for kids and young adults, especially animated ones. But Brave doesn't do that. It has the saving grace of just being lovely animation, but the other studios are catching up to the work of Pixar pretty quickly; they just can't rely on superior animation to sell their movies any longer. And doing so would be a mistake—viewers can be indifferent about shades of animation talent when what they really want is great story-telling that relies on the unusual: Finding Nemo imagines that fish have their own culture and spends as much time exploring that culture as it does looking for the lost one, Monsters Inc has the ludicrous set-up of a monster culture run on the energy expended on children's fear, and Up is about a man who lifts his house up with thousands of balloons and sails off to find adventure with an unexpected stowaway. And Ratatouille—a rat that wants to become a master chef! The territory that Brave covers has been visited many times, especially by Pixar's new owners, Disney. (I am not going to blame Disney here—I think they are smart enough to give Pixar a lot of autonomy; they just cover similar territory here.) And really, unlike any other Pixar movie I can think of, Brave acts preachy for goodness sake, beating the viewer over the head with its morality. Part of this preachiness is delivered by the voiceover of Merrida hinting at and eventually delivering the smarmy moral at the end of the movie, as though anyone watching it would be dull enough not to have figured it out.
But when the crew lets Brave get away from the moral and just romp, it is a tremendous amount of fun. The set pieces not given away in commercials and trailers are wild and border on the ludicrous, but always extremely vibrant. And the characterization, another hallmark of Pixar productions, is deep and full. Merrida's three brothers steal every scene they are in, though they never say a word. The clan leaders and their sons are hysterical, their anger with one another as shallow as their camaraderie is deep, even though they tend to forget it. And the fantastic elements laid lightly over the whole plot are gentle, in some ways reminiscent of a novel by Guy Gavriel Kay in their power and seclusion.
And of course, the animation is just gorgeous, especially the long shots of the various areas of the kingdom, from the moors to the mountains, and the forests in between.
There is a great deal to like about Brave; it's just a shame that the creators had a lapse of memory causing them to use elements that pull it away from being the prototypical Pixar movie it could have been.