Movie Review: BRAVE Is Good, But Is It Pixar Good?

The animation studio's first female-driven film fumbles.

The first chink in Pixar’s armor came with the Cars franchise. It was easy to ignore, though - the Cars movies felt like cynical plays for merch dollars, and the studio was still dedicated to new properties based on new ideas. Let them have Cars 2, we reasoned, if it pays for more interesting movies down the line.

One of those movies was Brave. An original story, Brave has the honor of being Pixar’s first female-driven film (after two decades). It also has the dishonor of being the studio’s first real creative stumble since 1998’s A Bug’s Life.

Like A Bug’s Life, Brave isn’t a bad movie. Were this film to be released by another animation house (and sometimes the movie does feel like it’s drifting into Dreamworks territory with a cavalcade of bad slapstick and bare butts), we’d be applauding. But as part of the Pixar canon Brave comes up just short, and the irony is that all of the problems lie in the one place where Pixar is king: story.

The company is asking that people keep the events of the second act secret (which I think is crazy as, a) that’s the crux of the story and b) while it’s the source of all the problems it’s also got some of the best bits in the movie), so I can’t fully go into the problems with the film. But here goes: Merida is a princess of the Scottish highlands sometime in the medieval period. She’s feisty and active, with little patience for the traditional trappings of princess life. She’d rather ride her horse with reckless abandon while lobbing volleys of arrows into targets than learn the history of her realm or the proper manners for court.

When Merida discovers that she’s to be married off for the peace of the kingdom she flips out and enlists the aid of a witch in the forest to change her fate. Things spiral out of control and Merida and her mother, who have been at loggerheads about how a proper princess behaves, are thrown together to... well, this is where the movie runs into problems.

The second act needs to be about Merida and her mother on some sort of a vaguely defined quest, but it’s mostly disjointed sequences - some of which are quite strong - that don’t quite add up to the proper beats needed to get to the finale. The second act beats all feel connected by ‘and thens,’ a similar problem that befell Prometheus. It’s the sign of a story that hasn’t been quite broken yet - the movie knows which beats it has to hit, it just doesn’t know how to get there. Events occur because they must occur narratively, not because they grow out of the actions of the characters.

This makes Brave less than engrossing. There are wonderful moments of animation - a scene where Merida and her mother go fishing is gorgeously done - and there are incredible moments of dark scariness - I honestly thought Merida’s mom was going to die on a couple of occasions, a rarity in a film like this - but there are also long sequences of unfunny slapstick and characters braying at each other in unfunny ways.

Merida (Kelly McDonald) is a strong character, and her mother (Emma Thompson) becomes a wonderfully animated silent character in the second act, but at the beginning they’re both almost insufferable. There’s a lot of arguing and bickering between the two, and we feel like the point has already been made long before eye-rolling tantrum #3. None of this is helped by the fact that Merida’s dad, voiced by Billy Connolly, is actually super reasonable about the whole thing; we spend the entire movie getting the two characters towards a position we see articulated in the opening scenes. It’s kind of frustrating.

The secondary characters range from delightful to grating; Merida has three younger brothers who are silent trouble-makers and are plenty of fun. But she also has three families vying for her hand, and the scions (and heirs) of these families are broadly painted caricatures with half a character quality each. This is the other major ball-drop in Brave - these characters should have had either more to do in the story or should have been richer. There are moments with these guys where the movie feels one perilous step away from Shrek-esque pop culture references.

Brave is aimed younger than most of the recent classic Pixar movies, but that makes the movie’s dark and scary moments all the more effective. There’s a demon bear lurking in the woods that’s actually pretty damn scary, and the movie’s action beats thrill. In these moments Brave comes up to full speed as a great Pixar film, and you think that the movie is finally picking up. Then it stumbles again, and it continues this staggering, stuttering pace all the way to the end.

I know that this sounds like a very negative review of Brave, but it isn’t intended that way. The movie is deeply problematic... for a Pixar film. I don’t know that it’s fair to hold the movie to these standards, but I can’t help it. And even if it were not a Pixar movie, Brave would probably fall into the ‘pleasant diversion’ category - almost as good as How To Train Your Dragon. It would be a pretty good Dreamworks movie, but with the Pixar history we hope for so much more.

A note: La Luna, the short that plays before Brave, is astounding. Complete and total Oscar winning material. I guess La Luna already LOST the Oscar! I didn't realize it had been in competition. It's still stunning.