Directors: Mark Andrews, Brenda Chapman, Steve Purcell
Starring: Kelly Macdonald, Billy Connolly, Emma Thompson, Julie Walter
Review: 3.5 stars (of five)
For the last several years, America’s best movie studio has alternated between ambitious experimentation (Wall-E, Up) and sequels in service of its most digestibly mainstream fare (the magnificent Toy Story 3, the ill-starred Cars 2). With Brave, Pixar takes another shot at the kind of stirring, heartwarming adventure that it did best with Finding Nemo and Ratatouille. This time, it’s as sweeping an epic as possible—a medieval period adventure with princesses and witches and the threat of war—done with a sophistication and flair that puts its parent company, global princess-product purveyor Disney, to shame.
Brave is not perfect. I found the first act a little shaky, a little hard to get into (more appreciative viewers would say it’s trying something a little different). The rest of the film is riveting, but it depends on jeopardy and action, an easy crutch for skilled moviemakers, and its conclusion comes just a little short of the emotional impact it might’ve had. That said, a Pixar film that doesn’t quite hit its mark will still be better than the majority of other movies in a given year. (Unless we’re talking about the Cars flicks, the crappy exceptions to the rule.
The second-best thing about the movie is the sophistication of its characterizations. The plot revolves around the tensions between a well-meaning but controlling mother grooming her daughter according to tradition, and the free-spirited daughter who’s having none of it. The writing, the character animation and the voice acting seem more nuanced and believable—despite being set in a fantasy of medieval Scotland—than any Disney princess pic I can think of.
(The best thing is that it is entirely about women, and every male character in it is essentially a prop, something to move the story along, with no real significance—even the buffoon of a father. In an art form and genre all too full of men’s stories in which women are entirely sidelined, a film so entirely for the girls is wonderful to behold.)
You get the feeling that having women cowrite and codirect the film is bringing something new to the table, something a story about mother-daughter relationships clearly benefits from. The three directors are new to helming a Pixar picture, and it’s exciting to see a new wave of creative talent get a shot at the big time. It bodes well for the continued success of the studio.
Despite a reliance on action and jeopardy, the film manages some nice themes. The tension is between parental urgings to conform and the child’s desire to rebel. The film finds a solution that makes both sides, and the society whose stability depends on the outcome of the struggle, grow up a little. It feels real, human, and just. (Disney’s main creative output these days is its eponymous TV channel, a vapid outpost of predictable, overacted, hyperkinetic, overbright pap designed to make today’s children into tomorrow’s better consumers. This is something else.)
Where the film is weakest (and here comes a bit of spoiler, about the ending) is in the combined resolution to the magic adventure and the relationship struggle. Through magical agency that is delightfully left mysterious, our young princess has gotten her mother into a jam. The clue to saving her is to “mend what has been torn,” and the characters assume it’s a family portrait that had been physically damaged. Unfortunately, the characters are correct, and any wise viewer who thought that was a metaphor, and salvation depended upon a deep, hearfelt reconciliation between mother and daughter will be disappointed. That reconciliation does occur, but yeah, the magic solution really does seem to rely on repairing random property damage.
So while the film is epic, with amazing camera work and the kind of gripping action last seen in Toy Story 3, with some nice characterizations and a feeling of originality despite its well-worn genre and themes, it just doesn’t quite rise to the level of unforgettable classic. But it hovers nicely at highly entertaining moviemaking.