Release Date: 17th August (UK)*
Director: Mark Andrews, Brenda Chapman, Steve Purcell
Running Time: 100 Minutes
Starring: Kelly Macdonald, Billy Connolly, Emma Thompson, Julie Walters and Robbie Coltrane (Voices)
Screening Reviewed: US Theatrical Release
Reviewed by Kyle Pedley
For a Studio so proudly determined in developing consistently original and unique cinematic outings over the course of it’s highly successful existence, Brave seems to represent the first time originality and purely self-contained storytelling have fallen by the wayside for animation giants Pixar. Whilst this may not deliberately have been the case, it is difficult to ignore the fact that their latest feature length outing, which depicts the story of feisty Scottish princess Merida, is their most pedestrian, by-the-numbers offering since 2006’s Cars (ignoring that films risible 2011 sequel).
At a time when Katniss Everdeen has given ‘girl power’ its latest shot in the arm (likewise with bow in hand) and other releases such as Snow White and the Huntsman have similarly empowered their princess leads, so much of what Brave seems set on telling and showing us with its central protagonist seems a little old hat and unremarkable to say the least. Little time is wasted on establishing Merida as an independent and headstrong yet fortunately quite likeable young woman, daughter to Billy Connolly’s bawdy King Fergus and Emma Thompson’s resolute yet overbearing Queen Elinor, and within the first few opening scenes the tension and dynamics between the royal family are very effectively laid out. Merida feels stifled by royal protocol and the way of life expected of her whilst Elinor is the atypical over-zealous parent who is firm out of necessity yet distanced and detached as a result.
If any of this sounds familiar that’s because essentially Brave weaves a tapestry of numerous narrative threads, character conflicts and plot dilemmas from a variety of not only Disney’s back catalogue (keen Disney-philes will be quick to pick up on echoes of Brother Bear and Aladdin amongst others) but also cinema as a whole, and continues to do so throughout with an uncharacteristic lack of focus or direction. It feels convincing yet derivative. Effective yet imitative. To reach the 30 minute mark in a film, particularly an animated family outing, and not have a clear idea exactly where it is heading or what it is trying to say and be is rarely a good sign. The film becomes a real boiling pot of lesser ideas and subplots all of which bubble over but never really seem to be heading in any unified direction. When the central plotline involving Merida and her mother (which I shan’t spoil) is introduced (albeit later than expected) and a buddy comedy/road movie vantage shifts into gear, it is cut short and squandered by a number of plot holes and inconsistencies regarding timespan and geography.
This may all seem hyper critical, but Pixar have repeatedly proven themselves masters of handling both character and story harmoniously, be they dealing with an abundance of characters and subplots (see the likes of Ratatouille or The Incredibles) or more whimsical, less plot-driven fare (such as Wall-E). Brave lacks much of that quintessential Pixar sophistication and finesse, and a genuine sense of what the story and characters are intending to communicate. The relationship between Merida and her mother is developed and resolved in a generally satisfactory (if fairly predictable) fashion, and by the films conclusion a journey has very definitely been made, but with the likes of a villainous daemon-bear feeling perfunctory and shoe-horned in and much of the tension of the third reel being easily avoidable had the characters involved applied a shred of common sense, it is an inconsistent and uneven one to say the least, and far from the quality of storytelling and film-making synonymous with the studio. Without wishing to speak ill of the house of mouse, Brave feels very much like a standard Disney Princess movie executed with Pixar’s technical and artistic prowess as opposed to a wholly original Pixar experience in the vein of it’s predecessors.
Thankfully Brave is, as expected, a technical marvel. The animation is exquisite and the art direction taken for Merida and her co-stars familiar yet unashamedly Celtic. Gone are the long straight locks of the Disney princess of old, replaced instead with Merida’s wild, untameable mass of red hair. The men are adorned with furs and kilts, and at times even unafraid to expose what is underneath them. The art direction and storyboarding perfectly capture the sweeping dramatic beauty of the Scottish landscape, even if the story keeps everything frustratingly close-bound. Patrick Doyle contributes a safe but thoroughly pleasant score which, coupled with the almost entirely Scottish voice cast has everything looking and sounding suitably convincing.
Kelly Macdonald gives a beautifully consistent central performance as Merida, not afraid to lend quieter convinction to moments which could have otherwise been overplayed, whilst Emma Thompson provides a convincing accent and lends nobility and sincerity to Queen Elinor, and where the story and writing may fall a little short in plotting her characters trajectory, Thompson’s delivery more than helps bring it up to mark. Brian Connelly’s King Fergus is as raucous, impulsive and scenery-chewing as to be expected, though in truth he provides little more than continuing comic relief and a tonal balance against Emma Thompson and Kelly Macdonald’s more grounding and nuanced work. There are plenty of other great British thesps who get their moments, from Robbie Coltrane as one of the three strikingly different clan lords who believe Merida should be betrothed to their sons, through to Julie Walter’s as a witch who is involved in a key plot point midway through the film, though thankfully none of these are given the time or material to truly overshadow the core family unit.
In all, Brave is a well executed and perfectly enjoyable outing that is still notably better than the majority of animated CG releases currently being churned out by Hollywood. Similarly, with the Ice Age seemingly never ending and there being far more of Madagascar to explore than anyone could have possibly imagined, expected or wanted, Pixar do need to be commended for again producing a new, original story and franchise at a time when ‘sequalitis’ seems to be at its apex. It is only really in light of Pixar’s usual standards that Brave really falls short, so if you are able to adjust your expectations accordingly, and are not too easily frustrated by a disjointed, somewhat mishandled and meandering plot, then you should find in Brave an entertaining, convincing and beautifully executed experience for the whole family to enjoy, with the added bonus of featuring the best triplets this side of Belleville.
(A)MUSINGS RATING - * * * (3 out of 5 stars)
* Brave is released in Scotland exclusively on August 3rd.