For those wanting to go in cold, there are some spoilers ahead.
There are a lot of firsts associated with "Brave," Disney/Pixar's new feature, set in the misty Scottish highlands. It's the studio's first period piece ("The Incredibles'" captivating retro-futurism doesn't count, it seems), their first fairy tale, and their first film led by a female character (in this case Princess Merida, voiced with strength and conviction by Kelly Macdonald). It was, at one point, also the studio's first movie directed by a woman (Brenda Chapman). And it's these firsts, combined with a charming atmosphere and layers of genuine heart, that make you want to love "Brave" more than you actually do. Because for all these breakthroughs, "Brave" feels hopelessly safe, less a Pixar trailblazer than yet another entry in the Disney princess line of films and products. Brave it is not.
Over the years Pixar has gotten a lot of flak over its lack of female characters. While this isn’t completely fair (the speech Elastigirl gives Violet in “The Incredibles” is Feminism 101, and the gender-bending, rainbow-colored female bird Kevin in “Up” was sufficiently progressive) but there is enough of a void to make “Brave” seem really big and important – a feminist fairy tale from Pixar? Fuck yeah!
What’s so interesting about the marketing of “Brave” is that all the footage and artwork thus far released has been culled from the first twenty minutes or so of the movie. It’s in this stretch that we meet fair Merida (Macdonald), her bright red hair an unwieldy tangle, who lives in a kingdom with her mother Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson) and father King Fergus (Billy Connolly) as well as three annoying, rambunctious brothers (the triplets Harris, Hubert and Hamish). Merida is less interested in the finery of being a princess (the tenets taught, stringently, by the queen), and more interested in shooting her bow (she’s an ace archer) and riding through the highlands with her trusty steed Angus. All of this stuff is beautiful and captivating, the camera gliding over trees and hilltops, everything rendered in a kind of vibrant, slightly heightened realism. And when what appears to be the main thrust of the story kicks in – Merida’s family wanting her to engage in the selection of a suitor – it’s so good you start to vibrate.
The lord of three kingdoms show up to woo her (led by Craig Ferguson, Robbie Coltrane and Kevin McKidd, of course), each more pathetic than the last. Merida can barely keep from rolling her eyes, and when a physical test is proposed, the winner of which will win her hand, she eagerly suggests archery. During the game she steps up, takes off her royal garb, and says she wants to attempt for her own hand. (Of course, she totally owns the archery.) It’s a powerful sentiment, the most unabashedly feminist moment in recent fairy tale memory (dating back to at least 1998’s “Mulan,” which featured a princess who, before that, was an androgynous, cross-dressing warrior) and it makes you want to stand up and pump your fist with pride (if you’re more out of touch you might scream out something like “You go girl!” but we wouldn’t suggest it).
It’s just that, *spoilers* after this sequence, the most memorable and moving of the film, it totally switches gears. The queen is furious at Merida, and can’t understand why she would do something that she feels is totally selfish (if Merida doesn’t take the hand of one of the suitors, it could lead to kingdom-wide war like something out of “Game of Thrones” except with less boobs and beheadings). Merida, outraged, grabs Angus and heads for the hills (quite literally). In a brief prologue it was established that Merida can see into the magical realm, drawn there by small spirits called “wisps” (their design and function owes a debt to Hayao Miyazaki’s bobby-headed spirits in “Princess Mononoke”) which are supposed to point you in the direction of your fate. On this day, they lead Merida to a ramshackle house anyone who's read a storybook would know to avoid.
In the house is where the movie really begins – it’s where Merida meets a mysterious Wise Woman (Julie Walters), a witch who is obsessed with wood-carvings of bears, and who offers Merida the chance to change her mother (with the help of a little dark magic cake). Returning to the castle, Merida gives her mother the magic cake, thinking that it will change her mind. Instead, it literally transforms the queen – into a huge, hulking bear. That’s right – “Brave” is really about a princess who accidentally transforms her mother into a bear. The movie changes, too, going from the tale of a plucky young girl who discovers herself and her power (and causes everyone else to acknowledge the same) to being both broader and more simplistic. It’s now about the relationship between her and her mother (Pixar can never walk away from a good buddy movie set-up), and instead of a young girl’s empowerment it’s about things like responsibility, entitlement, selfishness and communication. Things get much, much less interesting.
And it’s a huge shame, too. The bear transformation takes the wind out of the movie. What would have been amazing would have been if her self-empowerment somehow melded with her relationship with the magical world and she could have brought magic back to a land that had stopped believing in it, just as she starts to really believe in herself. But instead it’s an awkward buddy movie, made all the more awkward by the fact that the bear doesn’t talk, it just kind of growls around. The design of the movie remains unflaggingly brilliant — in particular the design of the queen bear seems at once familiar and altogether new (a rare feat considering how many animated bears, from Baloo to “Brother Bear,” we’ve seen throughout the years), and while the stakes don’t seem particularly high, especially since the queen was kind of a bitch to our more innately lovable princess, but the idea that, if the spell holds, the soul of the queen will evaporate from the bear’s body is pretty nifty.
Unfortunately, the script for “Brave,” worked on by Chapman, Steve Purcell, Irene Mecchi, and Chapman’s directorial successor, Mark Andrews, is wobbly and overtly segmented, with each section of the movie never having enough time to fully breathe or gain any traction. Some sections of the movie are just tonally amiss – there’s some truly clumsy narration that bookends the film and a moment when Merida returns to the witch’s hut and is greeted with a magical “answering machine” that feels like it was cut-and-pasted from an entirely different movie altogether. The last act, in particular, is a mess, with complicated relationships having to get tidily wrapped up, a whole lot of magical mumbo jumbo being unleashed on the kingdom (amusingly, the triplets take a bite of the same magic cake and turn into adorable cubs), various clans on the brink of PG-rated skirmishes, and, hilariously, a moment towards the end where Merida goes out of her way to assure middle-American audiences that she is not a lesbian (even though she totally is and the movie would have been much stronger if it had actually admitted it). *end spoilers*
While “Brave” would have just been a cute, visually dazzling but ultimately disappointing Pixar movie, it feels graver and more serious because it’s been this long since they’ve taken on a female protagonist and this really should have been a bolder, more experimental exercise. In the last few years, like clans of Scottish tribesman, the houses of Disney and Pixar have begun to merge (for evidence look no further than the Randy Newman songs in “The Princess and the Frog” or the newly opened Carsland expansion in Disney California Adventure), and “Brave” seems like a natural progression of that melding. This doesn’t feel like “WALL-E,” it feels like “Tangled.” And “Tangled” (and “Brave”) are perfectly fine animated movies, with “Brave” at times reaching staggering emotional depths in the mother/daughter relationship, but it’s not enough. It’s too unfocused and cute and lacking in memorable set pieces (an enraged, enchanted bear named Mordu can’t even scare up any excitement). In the end, “Brave” stops just short of being truly magical. [B]