Pixar Makes A U-Turn After First Critical Failure, "Cars 2"

Unbelievably, “Brave” is Pixar’s first approximation of what a Walt Disney-helmed fairy tale might be in the 21st century. In this regard, the film manages to succeed in a way that had mostly escaped the San Francisco-based company to date – and very few accomplishments have evaded Pixar’s grasp since its inception. Disney’s marketing department would lead you to believe that “Brave” is a sprawling Scottish epic about a young woman discovering her independence on her own terms. This isn’t an outright lie, but it is misleading – perhaps intentionally so to preserve many of the film’s charms. Its universal successes should please the most discerning of filmgoers because it’s a surprisingly nostalgic and dizzyingly creative spin on Disney fairly tales of the past.

The story is centered on a young Scottish lass, Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald), daughter to King Fergus (Billy Connolly) and Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson). Merida is maturing into something of a mischievous tomboy, to the chagrin of her parents, who fully intend to marry her off to the winner of an archery challenge. Merida rebuffs her parents’ intentions by outperforming her suitors, setting off a hailstorm of discord between the involved parties.

Co-directors Mark Andrews, Brenda Chapman (all of whom share writing credits with Irene Mecchi and Steve Purcell) handle the eventual, bizarre machinations of the story with extreme poise. When Merida’s rebellious behavior escalates and the movie goes seems to go off the rails, the creators keep things loose, fast, and funny, never losing the audience by maintaining strong, well-drawn characters and believable bonds between them. The nods to classic Disney films only strengthen the workmanlike qualities displayed by Pixar’s creative team. Like the best Pixar films, “Brave’s” broad appeal is central to its creative successes. It is ultimately a film about the relationship between parents and their children – an obviously universal theme.

A bond as tenuous as that between Merida and her mother makes for terrific drama. The metamorphosis that each character encounters is the backbone of the film and Merida’s meditations on fate and its affect on her life (present and future) are as deep as anything Pixar has addressed. In typical Disney fashion, the narrative speaks to both children and adults, and the same ideas are masterfully delivered on completely different wavelengths.

The comic relief falls mostly to Merida’s three young brothers – redheaded triplets – whose troublemaking never fails to amuse (and occasionally drive the plot forward). Robbie Coltrane, Craig Ferguson, and Kevin McKidd turn in great voice performances as the Lords whose sons are spurned by Merida.

The scenery is lush and the animation is gorgeous. Some of it has a stop-motion quality that gives the picture a dream-like quality. This ethereality lends itself well to a story set mostly in the Scottish wilderness. The 3D is murky at times, but it is not so noticeable to detract from the vividness and scope of the world that Pixar has created. However spectacular, some of the action beats are intense by Pixar standards and along with the emotional heft of the narrative, it might be too much for younger viewers.

“Brave’s” best trick might be its pacing. The directors never linger too long on a scene or a shot, lest they lose their most anxious audience members, but there is nothing abrupt the film. The juxtaposition between the different setpieces and themes (family, tradition, selfishness, and the inevitability of change among them) might have been lost on lesser filmmakers, but everything here is tied together beautifully, at an inimitably comfortable pace.

Based on the film’s advertising, some viewers might long for a more sweeping, pensive piece of cinema, but “Brave” is a sleek, unapologetically commercial piece through and through. It has something for every audience, but somehow manages to never compromise its integrity. Pixar seems to be an expert at this – “Cars 2” aside – and “Brave” is not an exception to the Pixar rule. It’s heartfelt, inspiring, and neatly packaged in a retro fairy tale wrapper that will have audiences coming back for more all summer.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Very Good)
Studio: Disney•Pixar
Director: Mark Andrews, Brenda Chapman
Screenwriter: Mark Andrews, Steve Purcell, Brenda Chapman, Irene Mecchi
Starring: Kelly Macdonald, Emma Thompson, Billy Connolly, Julie Walters, Kevin McKidd, Craig Ferguson, Robbie Coltrane
MPAA Rating: PG (for some scary action and rude humor)