Review: Pixar's 'Brave' Stresses Family Drama Over High Adventure
by Jeremy Kirk
June 21, 2012
The stories say a king's reign isn't forever, that the first sign of fallibility is a catalyst to being overthrown. You could hear rival animation studios licking their lips last summer when Cars 2 released and the Pixar guaranteed stamp of excellence was seriously called into question for the first time. It's down to their next release, Brave, that would truly test Pixar's mettle. Could they bounce back gloriously unveiling another true triumph in the history of animated film? Would their next film be just another cash grab with very little in the way of true heart or dimension? For years, Pixar ruled over the world of animated film. Do they still?
The simple answer is yes. No other studio out there is consistently making films as good as Brave, even though the film itself isn't completely up to Pixar standards. That's out of the way, though. The comparisons to How to Train Your Dragon won't be completely in the film's favor, either, but measuring it up against anything else becomes a moot point when you finally discover what Brave is really about. So many animated films out there, so many studios pumping out story after story that depict relationship after relationship, and Brave is the first to really aim at the bond between a mother and daughter. But that's not how this movie is being sold.
It's being sold as a Scottish adventure, a story set in mythic times of old when marriages were planned to ensure land security and familial tradition stepped in for any real ideas of finding true happiness or falling in love. Such is Merida's story. Daughter and oldest child to King Fergus (voiced by Billy Connolly) and Queen Elinor (voiced by Emma Thompson), red-haired Princess Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald) is a headstrong teenager, intelligent and extremely gifted in the ways of the wild. She's more comfortable firing arrows at targets than dressing up dolls, one thing she has over Toy Story's Andy.
So when the king and queen decide it's time to find Merida a husband, a contest is held between the three lords in the kingdom. To say the very least, Merida has no interest in following the traditions of her parents. More specifically, the traditions of her mother.
This description sets the tone for Brave, the setting and atmosphere all brilliantly crafted by Pixar artists. Much of the scenery in this film looks as beautiful and as vividly captured as anything shot in the actual Highlands. There's no denying the consistency in excellence at the studio when it comes to creating worlds and the characters that inhabit them. Whether it's the dark woods Merida travels through after deciding to leave her family or the ocean of deep red hair we see in the character's closeups, time and effort and a whole lot of talent is clearly on display when it comes to Pixar's animation. No one has ever doubted that.
Where Brave stumbles the most is in its structure. Directors Mark Andrews, Brenda Chapman and Steve Purcell all worked on bringing this story to life, and it was a nice move allowing Chapman to become the first, female director of a Pixar film with this one. The first 30 minutes of the film, though, finds a really difficult time getting any sense of a footing. We are introduced to characters, the bonds of the family are established, and these scenes are affable enough. Then there's the competition then a double-cross then a witch shows up then someone turns into an animal. That's when the story really begins.
It takes all of the film's first third to really get going, quite a long time when there's little to indicate where the story is really headed. To say would spoil what the marketing for the film have done such a fine job keeping a secret, but it's fair to say Brave is more family comedy-drama than high adventure. There are far more scenes of family members conversing, arguing, or fighting in this movie than scenes of anything action-oriented. Adventure does bubble up here and there. A subplot about a bear the king fought and lost a leg to years ago sets a nicer, darker mood to parts of the film. The witch, however, is more for plot device and comedic relief than any real feeling of an antagonist. She's treated as such.
Even though Brave isn't wall-to-wall adventure, it shouldn't be loved or hated based on how many thrills it carries. It's a smooth transition from Pixar's other films to this, since the studio has never been interested in one-dimensional adventure stories with little in the way of character development. The opposite, in fact. Past Pixar films like Finding Nemo and The Incredibles had deep-rooted, family connections between its characters, a love that you felt and saw in the characters as well as the actors voicing them.
The performances captured by Pixar artists help tell the story, never more true than when we see and hear Merida and her mother arguing about the daughter's life. Macdonald and Thompson were perfect choices in those roles, the familiar Scottish accent in the former's voice combining with the character's look to maker Merida one of Pixar's strongest ever. Connolly was a spot-on choice, as well, and the three actors, definitely the film's strongest element, make it so that yearn to see more stories about their characters.
Here is hoping, though, that a sequel (perhaps one day) to Brave would exercise a little more focus a little sooner. Its second and third acts are incredibly strong, saying so much about family, tradition, what a mother would do to keep her child happy. These deep messages and the way this story tells them are what make Brave an obvious Pixar movie. The flawless animation gives you a pretty good hint, as well. It isn't a triumphant return to the glory so many fans laid at Pixar's feet, and there's no guarantee the film will be the year's best animated feature. However, Brave is a noble story of family drama told with sincerity and through excellent but honest characters. At least Pixar is back to making us cry.
Jeremy's Rating: 8 out of 10