With “Brave,” Pixar has declared that audiences and critics can stop raving about how inventive and original their latest films are, and can begin classifying them as simple kids’ fare instead. The studio behind heartfelt, gorgeous animated treasures such as “Toy Story,” “WALL-E,” and “Up” demonstrates an astonishing lack of creative energy with their latest effort.
The film’s protagonist is Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald), a spunky Scottish princess with a Katniss-like affinity for archery, not that this skill ends up key to the plot in any noticeable way. Distinguishable for her impressive batch of lava-red hair, she is the sort of Disney heroine that would rather play rough with the boys than don a dainty dress. At this point, the plucky princess character has gotten so much play that it would have been more original to make Merida more Barbie than “Braveheart.”
Pixar is no stranger to films addressing family dynamics, from actual families to ones built from circumstance. Accordingly, the central conflict of “Brave” comes from familial tension, as Merida feuds with her parents (Emma Thompson and Billy Connolly) over her impending nuptials to one of the three buffoonish sons of the local clan lords.
“Brave” reminds the audience that Hollywood in general is either unable or unwilling to write stories about times past that don’t rely on 20th and 21st Century post-modern attitudes and pop psychology. When Merida finally manages to convince her family that she deserves to shirk her royal responsibilities and roam free, it’s through a feminist diatribe that, even when suspending disbelief, seems unlikely to sway the prevailing attitudes of warlike Scotsmen.
So “Brave,” thinly plotted as it is, winds up with the thematic declaration that young women should be allowed to decide whom it is they love, despite the story itself lacking any semblance of romance which might have lent that idea some thematic heft. Say what one will about the omnipresent environmentalist themes in “WALL-E” or the endorsement of individual exceptionalism in “The Incredibles,” but at least those films had morals that applied to contemporary audiences outside of Saudi Arabia. They say good writing develops character, then story, and then theme, so it’s no surprise that Pixar’s failure on step one has resulted in the collapse of the rest of “Brave.”
Unsurprisingly, the animation proves beautiful and nigh-flawless, with awe-inspiring attention to aesthetic detail. Yet the Pixar oeuvre consists almost entirely of films that demonstrate lavish visuals and boldly imaginative settings from beginning to end, which by comparison make the scenic Scottish Highlands, a place that can actually be photographed well with a camera and a helicopter, an uninspired template for the animators’ brilliance. On the uninspired note, up next from Pixar: a prequel to “Monsters, Inc.”, a lesser effort that no childless adult has watched in years, following two sequels and this boilerplate fairy tale.