‘Brave’ new world is a mixed bag
Uh-oh: “Brave” is the first Pixar movie that doesn’t feel like a Pixar movie.
This takes more getting used to than you might think. After 17 years and 13 blissful feature films (you don’t have to count “Cars 2” if you don’t want to), we’re comfortable with, if not beholden to, the company’s magic touch. Pixar’s stories are more original than the family-film competition, its visual invention more inspired, its scripts more ambitious and deeply comic. The company dares to treat kids like adults and lets the grown-ups relocate their inner kid.
“Brave,” by contrast, is a princess movie, the first Pixar has made and possible proof that Disney’s parent-company DNA is finally bleeding into the mix. The princess in question is a teenager — a medieval Scottish lass named Merida — and the film itself at times feels as awkward as adolescence. Eventually it straightens out into a fast, funny, emotionally resonant story about mothers and daughters (no love interests, thank you), but it takes a while to get there and it’s never less than weird.
The first half-hour bumps along with humor and a striking lack of direction. Merida (voiced by 36-year-old Kelly Macdonald) is a tomboy with a personality as fiery as her hair, and that hair itself is a marvel: a bewitching digital tangle of neon that almost deserves a 3-D movie of its own. So do the princess’s little brothers, carrot-topped triplets who steal “Brave” as expertly as they steal pastries from the castle kitchen.
Merida’s father, King Fergus (Billy Connolly), is all battle-scarred, peg-legged, bear-hunting Id, amusingly drawn as a mountain in a kilt. Her mother, Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson), is the castle’s poised Super-Ego, constantly reminding the girl of her princessly duties. The clans are coming — MacGuffins, Macintoshes, and Dingwalls — and Merida has to take one of the princes for a husband, but she would rather run off to the high crags and sing a drippy Disney ballad about being free. The standoff between mother and daughter escalates, unforgivable words are exchanged, doors are slammed. To anyone with the double-edged luck to live with a teenager trying like crazy to become her own person, this is both familiar and over-familiar.
Except that I doubt there’s a witch (Julie Walters) in your neighborhood to give an unhappy girl a potion that might change mother’s mind and body. If you don’t want the mid-movie twist spoiled, stop reading now. I mean it: Now. If you want to be parentally prepared, I can tell you this: Thompson’s mama bear gets turned into a literal Mama Bear.
Hilarity ensues. Well, more like chaos and tears and an eventual flight to the forest by girl and animal, where they bond despite Queen Elinor’s new fondness for grubs. “Brave” has zigged and zagged so often by now that you’re almost prostrate in your seat waiting to see what happens next. As expected, it’s unexpected: a poignant connection between the generations, an extremely funny bout of bear charades, and one climactic bear-on-bear fight that had the 5-year-old boy next to me shrieking in terror while his twin sister just sat there digging it. Consumer advisory: I’d say the movie’s for ages 6 and up, but you know your kids. At least until they’re teenagers.
It’s a genuinely odd film, and odd is not bad in an entertainment landscape of cookie-cutter multiplex fare. Yet “Brave” feels held together by baling wire. It’s notable as the first Pixar movie to be written and directed primarily by a woman, Brenda Chapman (who based the central story line on her relationship with her own daughter); it’s also notable for Chapman being fired over “creative differences” midway through the project. Mark Andrews and Steve Purcell are listed with Chapman as co-directors; all three, plus Irene Mecchi, had a hand in the script. You can sense the conference room arguments pushing the movie this way and that. (And who came up with that title, a generic adjective that’s barely referenced in the movie itself?)
The animation, of course, is exquisite — would you expect anything less? “Brave” glories in the rugged landscapes of its storybook Scotland, the camera making exultant flyovers and pushing up woodland paths to follow trails of pulsing blue will-o’-the-wisps past miniature Stonehenges. The 3-D is good and the character animation better, especially among the clans, with the head Macintosh a Braveheart-wannabe voiced by Craig Ferguson and young MacGuffin muttering incomprehensibly through his giant, bowling-ball face. (Someone here has seen Brad Pitt’s marblemouthed act in “Snatch,” and it’s actor Kevin McKidd.)
The bear animation is spectacular down to the finest detail of fur and muscle and talon, and the animals themselves come in sizes too varied to divulge. Yet if “Brave” ends up in a richly emotional place almost in spite of itself, the strain of stitching it all together shows. We would expect this kind of overstuffed joyride from Dreamworks Animation or the folks at Fox or even Disney itself. But it’s terribly ordinary for Pixar, and ordinary is no longer enough.