Something’s not quite right with Brave. It looks wonderful, is acted expertly by its voice cast and has moments of catch-your-breath drama, but the tone is all wrong. After the inspired storytelling of Up, Finding Nemo and Ratatouille, Pixar’s latest adventure is a serious letdown.
Part of the problem lies within the story Brave tells, or sort of tells. This movie can’t decide whether it’s serious drama, silly comedy or fairy tale. The best Pixar (and Disney) movies manage to combine all those things. Brave feels like Disney’s Robin Hood or The Black Cauldron. It’s OK, it’s just not going in the home collection.
The film opens with Merida, a Scottish princess with flowing ginger hair, playing hide-and-seek outside with her mother, Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson). It’s Merida’s birthday and her father, Fergus (a game Billy Connolly), presents her with a bow. She loves it and we can see the story wheels creakily turn: Merida thinks it’s the greatest gift ever. Mom isn’t so sure.
Moments later, as her father teaches her to shoot, one of Merida’s arrows sails wildly into the forest. While retrieving it, she comes across a will-of-the-wisp, a purplish, smoky fairy thing. When Merida returns to her parents, her mother tells her will-of-the-wisps can lead a person to her fate.
Familial happiness is shattered when a giant black bear attacks the camp. As Merida and her mother flee on horseback, Fergus goes head-to-head with the bear. It’s an exciting scene (and way too intense for younger kids) and a set-up for rousing adventure. It’s also as good as the movie gets.
Moving forward roughly 10 years, we learn Fergus lost his leg, the bear lived and Merida has younger brothers—gingie triplets—who become a big source of the movie’s comic relief. Merida (now voiced by Kelly Macdonald, who’s good as always) is set for betrothment.
Here, the story takes a turn and never quite recovers. Merida, who has become an expert archer, bristles at betrothal to one of Scotland’s three appropriate princes. And why shouldn’t she? Forget the implications of a woman having no choice in her fate (the filmmakers sure do); when the guys show up, they’re a triptych of doofuses.
Merida’s mother, a proper queen, wants Merida to simply fall in line and perform her royal duties. Following plotting that every viewer should see coming—wisps, witches, etc.—Merida gets her hands on a spell to change her fate. The side effect is that the spell turns her mother into a bear.
Instead of the story being about something challenging and contemporary—say, empowerment and choices—it becomes a lumbering farce. The bear, which still has Elinor’s mind, is played mostly for laughs as she and Merida struggle to return her to human form.
There are moments of heightened emotion—Elinor the bear becomes more bear-like and scarier as time moves on—but somehow the stakes never seem quite high enough.
The ending is happy enough, but it’s also too tidy and only meekly addresses the film’s first question: Why can’t Merida choose her own fate? But look at it this way. At least there are no bears-shitting-in-the-woods jokes. As silly as Brave sometimes is, that’s a small victory.