'Brave' but Not Bold

Pixar's latest film is disappointingly average

It's good that Pixar has a film with a strong female heroine. This is actually the company's first outing that is so overtly aimed at girls, and it only took, what, 18 years?

Unfortunately, outside of establishing a positive role model, driving home familiar points about not looking for the fairy-tale ending (even if the audience is too young to fully understand that) and some nice but not exceptional visual touches, Brave has little else to offer.

Suspiciously shallow and simple for a Pixar film, Brave doesn't break any new ground. Most animated movies don't, by the way, but even where this picture could distinguish itself within fairy-tale boundaries—areas where the House That Disney Bought usually excels—Brave mostly just idles. There's a princess, a witch, some comedy and a moral, but unlike most of the studio's legendary animated efforts, there are no great supporting characters, nothing remarkable about the way the film looks, and very little in the way of strong storytelling. If Brave had even one of these elements, things might be completely different.

Perhaps after all this time, we just expect those things from Pixar, and this is unfair criticism. Then again, probably not, because even if Brave weren't from Pixar, it would still only be OK.

In the Scottish Highlands, Princess Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald) defies the wishes of her mother (Emma Thompson) to marry one of three ill-matched suitors, as tradition dictates. Always her own person and more inclined to be a warrior than a genteel heir, Merida flees the family castle and cuts a deal with a witch in the woods to have a spell cast on her mother that would let the princess off the hook. Somehow, this is interpreted by the witch (Julie Walters) as "Turn my mother into a bear," which begets some labored and protracted attempts at comedy. There is some good action, but it may be too intense for the littlest tykes.

At this point, 3-D animation is the standard way Hollywood does business. Since most cartoons drive about as much traffic in the first two weeks as they do thereafter, the studios can make roughly 30 percent more from 3-D ticket sales—and that's just in the United States. Because these films also tend to attract more ticket-buyers with each purchase, families of four are out $40 or so just on regular tickets. So what's another $10, really?

That's the economic argument for 3-D, particularly with animation, and it doesn't appear that the new/old technology is going away anytime soon. But why does it have to be so visually uninteresting? The majority of the time, animation in 3-D adds nothing to the overall experience; it's certainly not something the kids care very much about. In this case, the standout achievement is Merida's vibrant red hair. That's totally worth paying 30 percent more, don't you think?

But the 3-D isn't truly a problem. The story, however, should take some lumps. There's a long-cherished Hollywood story about the wizards of Pixar scrawling movie ideas on napkins at lunch after they finished Toy Story. Those sketches became A Bug's Life, Monster's Inc., Finding Nemo and Wall-E. Those are pretty good business lunches to expense. Well, it was impossible to keep that momentum going forever, especially when the filmmakers of Brave weren't at the table.

Directors/co-writers Mark Andrews, Brenda Chapman and Steve Purcell are all experienced animators, but haven't approached anything close to this level. Chapman co-directed The Prince of Egypt, and Andrews co-wrote the script for John Carter, but it's hard to call either of those career-defining successes. With Brad Bird and Andrew Stanton moving to live-action films, some of the directors responsible for Pixar's best movies might not be coming back, so we could be entering an era of serious growing pains for the company.

What was true with Wall-E, Up and Toy Story 3 no longer holds: Pixar was making kids' movies for adult audiences, with more complex storytelling, sharper jokes and even an occasional edge. With Up, it wasn't uncommon to hear that people cried in the heart-rending opening moments. Wall-E ditched dialogue entirely for about a half-hour. These were risks that paid off, and cinema was better for those experiences. Now? All this stuff seems tame and tired.

Admittedly, this all sounds very gloomy, much like the Scottish Highlands. But Brave isn't dreadful. It's merely average, which is its own kind of disappointment. New Pixar flicks are like Christmas for movie fans: Anything less than a bunch of goodies is a real drag. While it's great to finally give us the female heroine, Brave lacks any real magic of its own.