Pixar, mid-slump, finds parent Disney's footsteps tougher to fill than expected



★★★ (out of 5 stars)

Brave may stand as the 13th feature to hail from wunderkind animation studio Pixar, but their first story concerning a fairy-tale princess also feels like their first feature indebted to the classic Disney mold (sans show-stopping songs). The main message about bucking tradition feels self-contradictory: Between this, last year's Cars sequel, and next year's Monsters, Inc. prequel, Pixar seems to be succumbing to the status quo.

Our proto-feminist princess is the scarlet-haired Merida (voiced with a natural Scottish brogue by Kelly Macdonald), an ace archer and all-around tomboy who would rather gallivant outside the castle walls than be held to the prim-and-proper expectations of her mother, Elinor (Emma Thompson). When the three lords of the land – Lord Dingwall (Robbie Coltrane), Lord MacGuffin (Kevin McKidd) and Lord Macintosh (Craig Ferguson) – bring their dunderheaded sons to court Merida, she lashes out against the notion and rides off into the forest, desperate to change her fate.

After a bustling start involving Merida's meddlesome triplet brethren and father Fergus' (Billy Connolly) efforts to corral his immediate and extended families, Brave's initial promise of far-flung adventure is nipped in the bud by a turn toward well-worn curse-reversing territory (imagine if Mulan were transplanted to Scotland and suddenly became Brother Bear in the same setting). Much was made of Brenda Chapman helming the project as Pixar's first female director, only to be replaced during the production (though still credited onscreen), and one couldn't be blamed for wondering at what juncture the film took the form it does today.

There's hardly anything wrong with Pixar's ever-lush animated prowess finding itself in service of fish-out-of-water antics and a mother-daughter bonding story to complement Finding Nemo's father-son journey (not to mention a bold animal attack prologue similar to that film's opening), but the introduction of so many ancillary characters only crowds a story of ultimately remarkable simplicity. Furthermore, the skilled Merida spends much of the story trying to atone for her acts of stubbornness rather than realizing her potential; she starts out defiantly fighting for her own hand in marriage against the three suitors, only for much of that matter to be swept aside in service of a tried-and-true ticking-clock deadline.

It's not that the vistas aren't gorgeous, that mishaps aren't funny or close calls aren't tense; they all are, and Macdonald's voice work, in particular, goes a long way toward imparting her headstrong heroine's sense of angst, determination and regret.

Alas, the relatively regressive zig-zag story tendencies at play dilute our sense of emotional investment in these characters. In the style of The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, it wouldn't be fair to call Brave anything less than good. However, in the wake of Dreamworks' How to Train Your Dragon and Disney's own Tangled, one has to wonder if it's good enough to bear the legendary Pixar name.

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