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As a fan of pretty much everything Pixar (who isn’t?) and a huge admirer of Celtic culture and history, it’s fair to say that I was eagerly awaiting Disney’s Brave. Perhaps more eagerly than a 20-something guy should be, for what is technically a “Disney Princess” movie. I’m sorry to say that I wasn’t impressed. It’s not that Brave is a bad movie, not by any means (and certainly not by the standards of animated kids’ movies - see the likes of the Ice Age and Madagascar franchises). It just isn’t up to the lofty standards that Pixar has set for itself. This isn’t a review; for that I’ll direct you to Ben Kendrick’s excellent write-up in Screen Rant. No, this isn’t a review: it’s a lament.
Initially, there’s a lot to recommend in Brave. Pixar’s typically dazzling visuals are in fine form, though perhaps not as much as in Up! or Toy Story 3. Casting is likewise excellent, with the amazing Kelly Macdonald (recognizable from her wonderful showing on Boardwalk Empire) and the always entertaining Billy Connolly taking center stage. But everything else falls disappointingly flat. The story is predictable to a truly disheartening degree - within a few minutes of the movie starting, I had the entire plot of Brave pretty much mapped out in my head. Themes of freedom and familial understanding are universal… so universal, in fact, that we’ve seen this basic story many times before. The finale actually took a turn I wasn’t expecting, because I didn’t think the writers (whose credits include The Lion King the Sam & Max series) to be so predictable.
With the exception of Merida’s mother Elinor (played by the equally amazing Emma Thompson and sadly left with very little screen time) all of the characters are one-dimensional, frustratingly set in their roles and unwilling to show more depth than a kiddie pool. The king in particular is guilty of this - he’s a big, hearty, jolly warlord whose only, and I mean only focus is an Ahab-style quest to kill the monster bear that ate his leg. Contrast him to the similarly huge (and mostly Scottish) Stoick the Vast from How to Train Your Dragon, and Gerald Butler’s performance as the latter is infinitely more believable and sympathetic. As an avid listener of Irish and Scottish folk music, I found the score and soundtrack to be less than inspiring, especially given the musical resources at Disney’s disposal.
But the most irritating thing about Brave is its sheer lack of creativity, something that’s a real shocker in such a highly-anticipated Pixar film. Aside from a plot that’s all too similar to the underwhelming Brother Bear from 2003, the fairly straightforward advancement of the story leaves a lot to be desired. Take Merida’s initial introductory sequence, where we’re treated to her riding through the woods, showing off her archery skills and scaling a sheer cliff face (set to some forgettable pseudo-pop). All well and good, and it introduces a main character and the setting. But contrast this straightforward sequence to one in the opening moments of Finding Nemo, wherein a manta ray serves as both teacher and bus driver to a “school” of fish, with said character giving the sort of catchy and annoying rhyme that’s instantly nostalgic to students of good elementary school instructors everywhere. That sequence is so enjoyable and so stunningly original that it sets the pace for the entire film. Unfortunately, the same can be said for Brave, but regarding its negative qualities.
Even Merida herself, while a plucky and entertaining character, can’t hold a candle to other “Disney Princesses”. The most similar creation in Disney’s girly pantheon is Mulan (created by many of the same folks who went on to make How to Train Your Dragon). She’s not just more interesting, more sympathetic and more complex than Merida, she’s also more, well, brave.
Whether it’s a rare miss for Pixar or a sign that the acquisition by Disney has drained it of its creative magic, Brave is an unfortunate failure to capitalize on the inspiration, budget and talent used in its creation. I’m sure Pixar still has some great stories to tell, but they might be getting few and far between: look no further than Cars 2 and Monsters University for some disheartening examples.