It’s not impossible for lauded animation house Pixar to make a mistake (or two, in the case of Cars, which does still pull in great affection from the younger set), and setting up their first film led by a female protagonist and with a brand new fairy tale as plot backbone in no way sounded like a mistake from conception. But despite a checklist of elements that should mark Brave as a bold new classic for both Pixar and Disney, the film instead diverges spectacularly –  it is both a middling example of Pixar innovation and wit and a beautiful introduction to one of Disney’s most compelling Princesses yet. Simply put, Brave is a poor Pixar feature, but it’s a wonderful Disney Princess film.

What Brave has to offer is twofold: a bold new Princess and an exciting new world for her to live and play in. Still better, it appears as if Disney, Pixar, writers and directors Brenda Chapman, Mark Andrews, Steve Purcell, and additional writer Irene Mecchi set out to accomplish those exact aims when crafting Brave. That sort of praise might not exactly seem like the kind worth singing, but when it comes to Brave, a film that was conceived of and written by Chapman before she was eventually ousted as the director in 2010, it’s important to note. The aims of Brave are true, but its methodology in getting in there doesn’t quite hit the mark.

The central conflict of Brave is surprisingly simple – young Princess Merida (Kelly Macdonald) is a bit of a wild one, and she desperately wants to be free to pursue her own interests (mainly archery, horseback-riding, and hair-growing) and to live her own life. Unfortunately, her mother, the stately and grand Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson) has other plans, plans that have included years of training and educating Merida to ascend to the throne. Their diametrically opposed views on the trajectory of Merida’s life come to a head when Elinor and jolly old King Fergus (Billy Connolly) inform their eldest child that the oldest sons from each of their related three clans are coming to the castle to compete for her hand. Merida isn’t ready to get married and she is not ready to be a regal princess and she simply doesn’t understand why her mother does not seem to get that. Merida is determined to change her fate.

It’s classic teenage angst, but done the Disney way. Merida and Elinor are both fully fleshed-out characters, and it’s easy to identify and sympathize with both of them. One of the film’s best scenes features Merida and Elinor staging make-believe conversations with the other one that cut in between the two, approximating the two of them actually having the sort of much-needed heart-to-heart that appears to have disappeared from their everyday lives (made all the more crushing by the film’s first sequence, which exhibits a young Merida’s fierce bond with her mother). But the two don’t talk, and they can’t connect, so headstrong Merida launches a plan to compete for her own hand, upsetting both her mother and the tenuous governmental balance between the monarchy and the clans. And, because this is a Disney film, Merida flees to a neighboring forest, where magical beings lure her into a scheme that should make everything better, but which only serves to make things far worse.

The team behind Brave has quite effectively hidden the ostensible “twist” of the film – while a close examination of the multitude of marketing materials released, a consideration of the film’s original title (The Bear and the Bow), and a reading of the film’s logline (which mentions a “beastly curse”) clue us in that something (and big) is going to happen, it’s still a surprise when it does, and that pumps up the emotion of it exponentially. Brave‘s strongest roots are in classic fairy tales, and the turn that the film takes remains in line with both the sort of outcomes and lessons we’d expect from such a tale.

Yet, there’s something not quite right about Brave. Despite a generally cohesive first half and a thrilling and emotional plot to work with, the film can never settle on a consistent tone or the sort of singular vision we’ve come to expect from Pixar productions. The film certainly has moments of humor, but they often seem wedged in for the sake of providing laughs, and little of it zings with the sort of pop we’ve come to expect from the Pixar team. The animation and overall look of the film is frequently stunning, but it’s never completely capitalized on, with wide shots of Scotland pushed aside in favor of spending time inside a magical forest that is indistinguishable from so many other “magical forests.” Likewise, the 3D elements of the film are used, then forgotten, used, then forgotten, and while they feel vital when they are utilized, they don’t feel essential when they’re not (and the use of 3D is a particular waste, as so much of the last half of the film is blanketed in darkness).

And yet…there is Merida, a lovely, matured progression of the Disney Princess archetype. And, beyond that, there is Merida and Elinor and their complicated, yet oddly universal relationship, one that we get to see played out in a non-traditional Disney way (that is, Elinor isn’t dead and that’s not what Merida’s issue is). Brave is at its best when it’s smartly and charmingly changing what we think think a Disney Princess can be, but it wavers when it tries to somehow reinvent the Pixar wheel.

The Upside: Brave is a beautiful and moving new fairy tale that fits seamlessly into the genre; Princess Merida is a wonderfully multi-facted heroine; the film shapes itself around problems that are familiar and understandable and will be well-understood and appreciated by kiddos and parents alike; the supporting characters that are given the most attention are well-crafted (but too bad for those others that fall by the wayside).

The Downside: The film lacks the trademark Pixar wit we’ve come to expect from the animation studio’s productions, and most humor feels shoe-horned in for the sake of having some laughs; the directorial kerfuffle that took place in the middle of production is not overwhelmingly obvious, but there is a distinct laugh of singular vision driving the film and its tone wavers throughout; 3D and beautiful animation are consistently wasted during a bevy of night scenes.

On the Side: The film had its Domestic Premiere at the newly minted Dolby Theatre (you might know it as the Kodak) in Hollywood as a special premiere for LAFF.


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