It took considerable courage for Disney and Pixar to make “Brave,” which is a significant departure from their earlier, quite different fare. But different doesn’t necessarily mean better. (After all, it was Pixar hotshot Andrew Stanton who persuaded Disney to go into the John Carter business.) And in this case the result, while visually striking and agreeable enough, is a distinctly minor effort in narrative terms—essentially a boys’ adventure story, but with a female hero, and mother-daughter bonding replacing the more usual father-son one.
Making the transformation easier is the fact that while she’s obviously a girl, Princess Merida (Kelly Macdonald) is the ultimate tomboy, as adept with a bow-and-arrow as Katniss Everdeen. A feisty young thing with bright scarlet hair, she’s the darling of her bumptious father Fergus’ (Billy Connolly) eye. But as the first-born of the ruling clan in the medieval Scottish tale concocted by co-scripter and co-director Brenda Chapman, Merida is to wed the eldest son of one of the other three clans to maintain the realm’s unity. Her mother Elinor (Emma Thompson), a stickler for protocol, arranges a contest to determine which of the suitors—one a braggart, the second a muscle-bound simpleton, and the third a goofy simpleton—will win her hand. But the princess refuses to be treated like chattel, bests all three contenders in the archery contest, and runs off into the forest to boot.
There she comes upon a crafty old witch (Julie Walters)—a dexterous woodcarver, who’s a dead ringer for the malevolent crones in Disney’s old traditionally-animated toons—and strikes a bargain with the hag, arranging for a spell to change her mother. But it’s a bad deal, because she unaccountably neglects to specify that it’s the queen’s mind that should be changed. And so Merida’s mother gets a physical transformation instead—one that feeds into Fergus’ fear and hatred of the huge black bear that took his leg years ago and still terrorizes the country. It’s that rather serious alteration that leads to the girl’s connecting with her mother on a deeper level than they’ve ever enjoyed before, resulting in mutual respect (as well as lots of antic action in which Merida’s three little troublemaking brothers are also involved).
With its frequently dark, forbidding moments—especially in the final reel—“Brave” could prove harrowing for the smallest children, but older kids should be as entranced with its visuals as adults will be. The animators fashion a wilderness as untamed as the heroine and as palpable as live-action photography, made all the more tactile by the 3D effect (and accented with beautiful blue touches, courtesy of the magical will-in-the-wisps). But frankly the screenplay isn’t quite worthy of the technical wizardry. The entire masculine company, from Fergus on down (with the exception of the trio of rambunctious boys), has a been-there, seen-that quality. And of course the entire premise of the rebellious daughter who doesn’t care to be employed as a political chess piece is hardly revolutionary. Nor is the plot’s turning point—the witch’s spell—well thought-out, with the rationale behind its going awry so slender a notion that even in a fairy-tale setting it’s almost laughably dumb. (The fact that the witch simply disappears for the remainder of the picture also seems structurally unsound.)
But the mother-daughter section that follows is really the centerpiece of the picture, and the animators, Macdonald and Thompson collaborate to make it touching despite the implausibility of the conceit. It also has some quite amusing sequences (like one set at a bubbling brook) as well as a few genuinely scary ones toward the close. And the ending is, of course, never in doubt.
To its credit, “Brave” doesn’t succumb to the cliché of the handsome prince who serves as deus ex machina to save the situation; its focus remains securely on Merida and her parents, whatever their temporary guise. At the same time, it never quite succeeds at finding an entirely satisfying new template in the way that the best of the Pixar product—“Ratatouille” most of all, but “Up” as well—has done.
But the technical wizardry on display goes far to save a story that has its heart in the right place but in the end seems made up of mostly recycled elements, though they’ve been dressed up with sparkling new makeup.