When the Pixar brain trust (namely John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton, and Pete Docter) first began throwing around ideas for feature films, they came up with the bases for what would ultimately become “Toy Story,” “Monsters, Inc.,” and “Finding Nemo.” The last idea from that first brainstorming session to hit theaters was “WALL·E,” which means if we were to look at Pixar’s output as if they were a band, everything up to “WALL·E” could be considered part of Pixar’s debut album. And no matter how you slice up those first nine films, that is one hell of a debut album.
Continuing with that analogy, we’re now four songs into Pixar’s second album, and the pressure to live up to their own admittedly high expectations is clearly having an effect on their songwriting, so to speak. After delivering another original and heartwarming tale with “Up,” Pixar did back-to-back sequels for the first time in their history (red flag), and the while the first sequel proved to be wildly successful (“Toy Story 3”), the second one was the first movie in the studio’s history that could be called a flop, though it still grossed $191 million (“Cars 2”). And now we have “Brave,” which marks another dubious first in that it’s the first Pixar movie that doesn’t feel at all like a Pixar movie. If anything, it plays like a Disney movie with Pixar’s title card slapped on it.
Set in Scotland, Merida (Kelly Macdonald), like it or not, is a princess, and the time for her betrothal to the first-born son of one of three neighboring tribes is fast approaching. Merida’s mother, Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson), tries to teach her proper etiquette, but Merida is much more like her father, King Fergus (Billy Connolly), and would rather choose her own, less princess-y path. After a fight with Elinor, Merida rides off into the woods, where fairy “wisps” lead her to a witch (Julie Walters). Merida tells the witch that she wants to change Elinor so she’ll look at things differently. The witch obliges, but there is a nasty, and potentially permanent, twist to Merida’s spell, and now mother and daughter must mend their differences against a ticking clock.
Apart from the stunning visuals – and really, what they did with Merida’s hair alone deserves an award for technical achievement – there is nothing here that resembles Pixar’s other work. The story bears uncanny similarity to “The Little Mermaid” (stubborn daughter puts family in danger for selfish reasons), the dialogue is pedestrian, the soundtrack features contemporary pop songs in the montages, and perhaps worst of all, it’s the crudest Pixar movie to date. For a studio that has prided itself on smart, clean humor, it’s shocking to see them resort to bare butts (twice), boobs and snot. Pixar’s competitors have taken great steps to be more like them – DreamWorks in particular has improved by leaps and bounds with “Kung Fu Panda 2” and “Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted” – while Pixar appears to be doing just the opposite, happy to feed at the sequel trough and go for the easy joke whenever possible. Is this really happening?
“Brave” has its good points; the bits where the cursed Elinor tries to maintain her dignity are amusing, and the movie’s moral that parents and children could mutually benefit from listening to each other is a good one, but they cannot make up for what amounts to the weakest story Pixar has assembled to date. Several Pixar staffers have said in interviews that nearly all of their previous films had a come-to-Jesus moment during production where stories were drastically altered in order to most effectively capture that Pixar magic. “Brave” feels like the ‘before’ movie, the one that is scrapped in favor of something better. Lasseter, Stanton and Docter, all of whom served as “Brave’s” executive producers, will probably never admit it, but you have to think that they know they dropped the ball here.(2.5 / 5)