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Brave Is Pretty to Look At, But Just Doesn’t Cut It, Especially For Pixar

Directed by Mark Andrews, Brenda Chapman, and Steve Purcell
Written by Andrews, Purcell, Chapman, and Irene Mecchi
Disney, 2012

Pixar’s crazy streak of amazing awesomeness officially ended last year with Cars 2, a movie that was entirely too cash-grab for the studio, and the partnership with Disney showing signs of greed over substance.  You could have even said that with Toy Story 3, but it managed to pull out a winner despite the unfortunate place the company found themselves in: spinning their wheels after rattling off original after original work, all trying to top one another: The Incredibles, Ratatouille, Wall-E, and Up were not only great movies but a great promise for the studio’s future.

So good to see them back on the original track, except for the fact that this movie comes from a tired place.  Brave and its Scottish setting immediately evoke Braveheart, but its story is the familiar trope of a kid defying his/her parents and that old, “This is my life!” type stuff made famous by Rebel Without A Cause, added to the tired “that’s the way it was back then” story of kings and queens and arranged marriages.  But even weirder, this movie takes liberally from Disney’s own animated feature Brother Bear from 2003.

Merida (Kelly Macdonald) is the flame-haired princess of Fergus (Billy Connolly) and Elinor (Emma Thompson).  The family got its status from Fergus coming out the victor in a bear attack, and while Fergus remained the same, fun-loving, beer-swilling dude, Elinor became a by-the-rules queen, wanting everything to be proper and instilling it into her growing daughter.  Apparently, she’s already given up on her younger triplet sons, who are always into some mischief without reprisal.  Merida, though, is an ace with a bow, and has no intentions of being a mannered queen.  When her parents want to arrange her to be married by opening up a competition with all suitors, Merida gets to pick the competition.  So she chooses archery because, well, she’s going to make a point.

That point causes a rift between she and her mother, and it still seems as though she’s going to be forced to marry someone.  So Merida follows some forest wisps to a witch’s house, and asks for something that can change her fate.  The witch gives her a pastry of some sort that, when her mother eats it, changes her into a bear.  She’s still her mom, but can’t speak, only roar, and if she’s discovered, she’ll be killed.  And the curse could become permanent.  So Merida has to get her out into the wild, find a cure, and maybe repair this fractured relationship.

The movie is really strange to watch.  There’s no real antagonist, so there’s not a real adventure that propels the story forward.  The filmmakers add some sort of legend to it: an old tale that is told in the movie has some merit and comes back, but that could have been completely written out because nothing of value is added.  And I just couldn’t stop thinking, “Why a bear?”  Sure, bears figure prominently in the family’s history, but how does a lesson get taught better by changing the mother into a bear?  The whole movie just feels out of touch, with nothing clever driving it, randomness and convenience converging to make something that seems like a story.

I think ultimately I’m disappointed in the lack of adventure.  Once Merida follows the wisps to the witch’s house, and the cursed pastry comes into play, the movie stops dead in its tracks.  It’s no longer a movie where a free-spirited young woman defies her parents and gets into danger, it’s about renewing a bond between mother and daughter.  Which is touching, but it doesn’t feel right, ever.  And the movie becomes inappropriately titled since it’s such a little part of the film itself.

The animation is still Pixar standards, but the story is not.  And that’s what Pixar has always prided itself in, story.  This one could have used some fresh ideas.

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