Review: Brave

Courtesy Walt Disney Pictures/Pixar Animation
(From left) Lord MacIntosh and his son, Young MacIntosh, Merida, Wee Dingwall and his father Lord Dingwall, Lord MacGuffin and his son, Young MacGuffen, Queen Elinor and King Fergus in “Brave.”

The problem with having an excellent reputation is that people — fairly or not — take that excellence for granted and anything less than that standard is considered a disappointment.

Were “Brave” to have come from DreamWorks Animation, Nickelodeon Movies, Universal Pictures or any other number of studios that dabble in animated films, it would be considered an average to OK movie.  But when a movie boasts the Pixar brand, audiences expect excellence. Not merely a serviceable film. “Brave” isn’t a bad movie. It just never grabs you on that emotional level of other Pixar films. It’s nice to look at with amazing environments and creative character design, but that magical Pixar spark is missing.

Courtesy Walt Disney Pictures/Pixar Animation
Fergus and Merida practice their sword fighting while Elinor looks on.

Princess Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald, “Boardwalk Empire”) wants to enjoy her life and not be forced to go along with tradition, much to the frustration of her mother, Elinor (Emma Thompson, “Men In Black 3”). Her father, Fergus (Billy Connolly, “Fido”), is sufficiently henpecked and content to relive his glory years as a fierce warrior who lost part of his leg in a gruesome battle with a bear.  For Fergus the only thing better than ruling the kingdom with his wife, daughter and mischievous triplet sons at his side would be to battle the bear once again and have it stuffed in the castle chamber.

Courtesy Walt Disney Pictures/Pixar Animation
Lord MacGuffin, Lord Dingwall and Lord MacIntosh.

The heads of three clans present their sons to Fergus in hopes that he will approve one fit to marry Merida, who balks at the thought of an arranged marriage and humiliates her would-be suitors by winning the archery competition for her hand — an act that infuriates Elinor. A distraught Merida rides to the woods and convinces a witch who to create a spell to “take care of her mother.”

Courtesy Walt Disney Pictures/Pixar Animation
Merida follows a Wisp.

The moral of “Brave” seems to be “Kids, if you don’t like your parents you can always try poisoning them and then they’ll come around.” Merida hardly seems concerned when Elinor gets violently ill and (to keep the film PG) turns into a bear. Now forced to flee the castle less her father kills her mother, Merida and Elinor must learn to cope with their new dynamics and find a way to reverse the spell before it becomes permanent.

The film is marketed as a defiant girl fleeing her kingdom and going on some grand adventure, but it’s much more a story of a daughter and bear…mother learning to accept one another. The trailers make “Brave” look like an exciting adventure. Instead, we get couch time with Dr. Phil and an addition to the Walt Disney Princess collection.

Courtesy Walt Disney Pictures/Pixar Animation
Queen Elinor and King Fergus

One of the film’s biggest issues is its lead. Pixar has touted that Merida is its first female protagonist, a commendable attempt to give the 10-and-under set not quite ready for “The Hunger Games” their own bow-touting role model. Unfortunately, Merida manages the dubious distinction of being Pixar’s first unlikable lead as she’s bratty and seemingly doesn’t care about anyone besides herself. She reflects the movie — not nearly as deep and complicated as it should be to pull off what could have been a much stronger story.

This may be a result of some of the behind the scenes drama. Brenda Chapman (“The Prince of Egypt”) came up with the concept for the film — reportedly inspired by the relationship with her daughter — and served as its director until she was removed from the project midway through. Her replacement, Mark Andrews, is a Pixar employee making his proficiently adequate, but safe directorial debut. Andrews resorts to predictable slapstick humor and an overly simplistic fix to resolve the issues between Merdia and Elinor. I’m curious in seeing how different Chapman’s version of “Brave” is from the finished product as the “creative differences” that led to her removal may have made for a much stronger movie.

Courtesy Walt Disney Pictures/Pixar Animation
Elinor, Fergus, Merida and the triplets.

“Brave” is a competent movie, but unlike its unerring heroine, it never manages to hit the mark. Go in with low expectations and you might be pleasantly surprised, but this isn’t another Pixar bullseye.

Rating: 6 out of 10