Pixar’s “Brave” misses mark, hits mediocrity

by Kevin Smead

“Brave” is an unsettling movie. This is not because of the nature of the film, but rather the quality. When Pixar released “Cars 2” to middling reviews, many wrote it off as a single misstep from a studio that could do no wrong. However, once again, Pixar seems off its game with “Brave.” It’s absolutely certain there is something missing from “Brave” which Pixar’s other, more acclaimed films definitely had. More than anything, it feels as though Pixar turned what could have been an epic film into one missing all the marks.

“Brave” is the story of Merida (Kelly Macdonald), an inhabitant of what appears to be a mythic version of early Scotland. Merida’s mother, Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson) wants Merida to be a princess, but Merida desires to be a warrior like her father, King Fergus (Billy Connolly). Merida attempts to change her mother completely through less-than-legitimate means and ends up in a difficult situation. It’s then up to Merida to set things right and, ultimately, save the kingdom.

The issue with the “saving the kingdom” part is nothing ever really feels dangerous. Sure, the plot is centered more on a girl’s struggle with her mother and how those relationships work, but “Brave” never makes up its mind on what kind of movie it wants to be. There’s a plot involving an ancient kingdom, an evil bear and something about stopping a civil war. Really though, all of that only takes up a few minutes of the film, despite clear indications these are really important plot points. Granted, this is Disney, and while a political intrigue tale doesn’t sell princess dolls, this is also Pixar, which has a knack for pleasing everyone thematically. “Brave” is the first Pixar movie that doesn’t really feel universal. Even Pixar’s usually charming brand of sly humor feels odd and out of place in an otherwise relatively serious film. This is exemplified by the attempt to conceal a “Macbeth” reference in a cute side-character. “Brave” just never seems to click.

The performances don’t really go anywhere either. The ensemble cast of highlanders is good for a few laughs, but never amount to anything particularly memorable. It’s honestly hard to even recall any of their names. The main characters do fare a bit better, though. Macdonald does a good job voicing Merida, making her at least somewhat likeable despite not being a very complex character. Thompson’s Queen Elinor begins the film by being dreadfully one- note and Connolly’s King Fergus is simple, but entertaining.

The biggest conundrum, however, is the saving grace of “Brave” is also its biggest issue. The visuals in the film are nothing short of beautiful. Overall, though the characters may be relatively boring, they all look great. Mythic Scotland is also a wonderful setting and everything is rendered in breathtaking detail, especially Merida’s hair. It’s obvious a significant amount of time and effort went into designing the main character’s her distinctive look, and it definitely pays off.

While the visuals are all stunning, they’re just heavily underutilized since the plot doesn’t even allow Pixar to truly work their magic. More than half of the film takes place in a castle and many scenes are too dark for the viewer to see any interesting detail. It’s a shame this world is never fully explored, as one can only imagine what sort of sweeping Celtic vistas Pixar could have created given the right narrative motivation.

One can only hope this mediocre trend is just that: a trend. Who knows, maybe Pixar will be given the chance to explore the world more in a sequel; or maybe it’ll just move onto something else, although this would be unfortunate considering the setting has great promise. While two movies are by no means a cause for concern, one can only hope Pixar’s next outing has the one thing “Brave” is ironically missing: the daring and heart that guaranteed Pixar a place in the memories of millions.