Thanks to a filmography filled with modern classics like Toy Story, Finding Nemo, and Wall-E, Pixar Animation has a high bar set for themselves. Each new film is unfairly compared to the last — really, can every animated blockbuster be an existential silent film starring a robot? — with "good" Pixar movies feeling subpar. The feeling is unavoidable. The studio's latest, Brave, suffers from the comparison. With a messy plot and inconsistent tone, the movie sails under Pixar expectations and then some. The fairy tale feels directed by committee — something you might expect from the umpteenth entry of Shrek — instead of telling a singular story. Brave timidly enters the arena of female-centric fare and exits badly bruised.
Merida (Kelly Macdonald) isn't like her fellow Disney princesses — she's tough, loves an adventure and could care less about who she's going to marry. But her passion for archery, rock climbing and all things Scottish warrior come into contention with her mother, The Queen (Emma Thompson), who hopes to pair her up with one of the Highlands' finest in order to mend a divide between the country's clans. Finding no help from her burly father Fergus (Billy Connolly), Merida decides to "change her fate" (a phrase you'll be endlessly repeating in your worst Scottish accent after the credits roll) on her own, first besting her suitors at target practice then abandoning the coupling ceremony all together.
Brave begins as a story of a strong-willed girl proving herself in a male-dominated society, rooted history and myth, relishing in the scenic landscapes of Scotland. It has the inklings of a grand adventure with Merida at the center. But thirty minutes in, the film takes a hard turn in another direction — suddenly, we discover what the movie is really about. Employing a local witch to solve her problems, Merida changes her fate (there it is again) quite literally, a transformation that forces mother and daughter to go on their own adventure away from the kingdom. The second half of Brave is like an entirely different film, a simpler, classic Disney tale that skews a bit younger, but is no less engrossing. The blending of the two is off-putting, and the film never recovers from the "twist."
Keeping Brave from ever solidifying itself as a streamlined story is the film's imbalance of comedy, drama and scares. Both in its features and short films, Pixar has displayed a knack for slapstick timing, but in Brave, it's goofy for goofy's sake, along with a slew of cheap, modernized gags that fall flat. There isn't much for adults to enjoy without a compelling narrative to make up for the silly jokes. On the other end of the spectrum are some intense scares that are energized and well-crafted, but could leave kids unsettled. Balancing it all with a seemingly heartfelt mother/daughter story leaves Brave as mushed up as haggis.
Merida is a great character, Macdonald's vocal talents livening her into one of Pixar's best to date. But Brave is a meandering vehicle that doesn't do service to the performances. Even the detailed visuals are restrictive to the story — aside from the opening minutes, there's rarely a moment that doesn't take place inside the small-scale of a castle dining hall or undefinable forest setting. With Brave, Pixar attempts to depart from the sensibilities of old school princess films, but the effort is vapid. The film wanted to change the animated female's fate, but it didn't take any risks to do so.