Brave (2012), the most recent animated Disney/Pixar offering, might be the best–looking in all the studio’s history. The animators spared themselves no challenge, insisting on gaping vistas of flowing grass, snow-covered mountainsides shrouded in mist, flowing streams that babble over stones and fish, bear hides bristling with muscle and fur, rich tapestries of extraordinary detail, and the most difficult of all to render through computer animation, lifelike human hair. All these elements surge with energy and vibrancy, creating a canvas that is both realistic and expressive at the same time. Contrast the look of Brave against the drab and uninspired landscape of Frankenweenie (2012), another Disney product, which seemed willfully ugly and bromidic. I will say one thing for Frankenweenie, however: Its indifferent look matched its story. Unfortunately, what happens in Brave isn’t equal to how it looks.
In medieval Scotland, King Fergus (voice of Billy Connolly) and Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson) are hosting a competition to decide the betrothal of their daughter, the fire-headed Merida (Kelly Macdonald), as is the custom of the kingdom. Leaders from the neighboring clans put forth their sons in contests of strength and skill designed to woo the young princess. Merida, being redheaded, is willful and resistant to any sort of authority, especially her mother’s insistence upon lady-like decorum and passivity. Merida dreams of riding her steed Angus and putting arrows through the trees of the highlands and is adamantly against being married off. Elinor tries to understand but houses a rigid devotion to the rules and tradition, and while she’s empathetic, she won’t give where it counts. Fergus is more empty-headed and is interested only in being loud, keeping his wife happy and killing bears, the nastiest of which stole away with his left leg years ago.
After an ugly fight between mother and daughter, Merida runs off into the woods and stumbles upon a witch (Julie Walters) who trades in potions and decorative woodcarvings (she started the second business after the first created too many dissatisfied customers). After being unpersuaded by the witch’s warnings, Merida asks for a potion that will change her mother and is given one. When Merida administers the concoction to Elinor, she is punished for her lack of specificity and finds that her mother has changed, but into a bear. As it goes with these things, Merida has two sunrises to repair her relationship with her newly growling and often hungry mother before the changes become permanent, all the while trying to keep the new arrangement from Fergus, who wouldn’t let the fact that he’s married to one keep him from completing his instinctual bear-killing duty.
Most animated movies need compete only against an afternoon spent doing chores, but each year’s Disney/Pixar entry has to compete against its roster of titles that includes some of the most formidable names in the genre. This is a good problem to have (Disney has had such a corner on the cartoon market since inception that every time it issues a release it is in some way judged against the Snow Whites and the Dumbos), but it does create the tendency to see every Pixar offering that isn’t a masterpiece as a failure. Brave is neither of those things and it comes closer to the former than the latter, even if it is a caber length away from greatness. It’s charming and energetic, but that’s the minimum we expect from Pixar. What’s missing is a certain inventiveness, a tendency to let a good bit stay a good bit without trying to push it into a great bit. The joy of Toy Story (1996), Up (2009), Finding Nemo (2002) and the rest of Pixar’s greatest hits is in the controlled chaos of it, a screen teeming with activity that is both intelligible, purposeful and often funny.
In Brave sequences are either too chaotic, as is the case with many of Fergus’ moments, or undercooked, as a sequence in which Elinor, in bear form, is given cover through the castle by her three sons, which builds toward a hilarious froth but never boils over. Perhaps the most damning thing about Brave is how it feels borrowed from other movies. True, parental understanding is a staple of animated films, and Pixar has dipped from that well its fair share but each time with something new to say. Brave is either looking at other Disney movies (can you think of another redheaded Disney princess who had a domineering parent and made an unfortunate, unexpected and body–changing deal with a witch? [to say nothing of the recent Tangled (2010) about a contumacious princess whose most prominent feature were her locks]) or, worse, copying its competitors (the Tartan-clad mustachioed hulks that make up the men in this movie appear to be inspired by the similar Vikings of DreamWorks’ How to Train Your Dragon ; this may be coincidental as Brave’s production began in 2008—the bigger culprit for its relative dearth of polished invention may be creative disagreements that led to changes in leadership on Brave).
However, this glorious scene is a marvel of animated brilliance, but it is supposed to represent the emotional centerpiece of the movie (another Pixar strength) but doesn’t have the chops. The bristling argument that led to Elinor and Merida’s split is impassioned and, I imagine, would be terrifying for sensitive children, but their reunion, which for all intents and purposes occurs completely during this wordless fish-catching sequence feels like a cheap cop-out. The rest of the movie is a speedy race against time to transform Elinor back to her human self, and their relational troubles are swept away entirely. What separates Pixar from the rest of the pack is the way it looks, the creativity of its set-pieces and its genuine emotional ability. Brave has only the look (the company redid its animation system to achieve it), much less of the touch.