Pixar films carry a certain amount of expectation with them purely by dint of being Pixar films. A studio that has made Toy Story, The Incredibles, and Up has a lot to lose by continuing to put out films because no matter how tall they stand above the rabble, if they fail to measure up just as strongly against their own product they are popularly considered to be failures. Is it fair to expect every film to be a masterpiece with the emotional and narrative power of Up or Toy Story 3? No.
That may sound like an inauspicious way to begin a review, but trust me when I say that I only set off on that path in order to preemptively defend myself against people who may say that I am rating you too highly, Brave. This is because, while you may not be in the top tier of films made by Pixar, you are still a solid, well-told, expertly crafted film that is filled with fun and thrilling moments and filled with talented vocal performances.
To give away too much of your story would be to betray your surprisingly enigmatic marketing. However, I feel safe in giving the following rundown – Merida (Kelly Macdonald) is the princess of a royal family that is responsible for keeping a number of warring clans united. On the day her hand in marriage is to be won in a competition, Merida breaks with tradition, shames her suitors, and declares her desire for independence from the path set for her by her mother (Emma Thompson). From there the plot takes a number of unexpected turns, all of which lead to moments of discovery, self-actualization, humor, and excitement.
A lot of this is just par for the course for Pixar, but the points bear repeating. First there is the lush, groundbreaking visual style. Merida has a set of flowing, fiery red locks that at times was just distracting because of its physical fidelity. It’s the kind of effect that is simple, and should not be a massive and stunning achievement, but it is. Not only that, but much of your humor is subtle, relegated to the background of scenes that seemingly flash by. It’s the kind of nuanced, layered visual storytelling that we expect from Pixar. These elements are irrefutably marvelous.
Where you may stumble for some is in your story and character arcs. In the past Pixar has tackled some heady, existentially weighty ideas, so for you to spend your time in a simpler story about family and fate and making your own way in the world may seem like a step back. The thing is, you don’t stumble in your execution, and you don’t make pretensions toward being more than you are. If your moral message is slight, and if your character progressions are predictable, I can see that as being disheartening for someone who was expecting yet another paradigm-redefining motion picture, but I was thoroughly entertained. The slightness and simplicity of your message isn’t something I can ignore or refute, but at the same time I don’t think that it is something I need to defend.
We do suffer from a form of bias of preconception for certain films. We expect certain directors or production companies or writers who have achieved a sublime greatness in the past to never step down from their rarified perch. This sometimes works against us, though, especially in the critical capacity. Sure, it may be vaguely disappointing to see someone we know is capable of much more deliver something that is merely excellent rather than transcendant, but that shouldn’t require us to discount the expert artistry still on display.
So it is with you, Brave. Do you measure up against the best of Pixar? No, perhaps not. But divorced of your heritage, and judged as a film on your own terms, you more that manage to elevate yourself above the horde and stake your claim as an artful, engaging film.
Brian J. Roan