Thursday, June 21, 2012
There's a whole lot of craftsmanship but not so much magic in "Brave," Pixar Animation's first foray into the sword-and-sorcery genre. It's a stout tale well-told of Scottish royalty and magic curses and finding your own fate. But the movie held few surprises for me, and at times seemed almost to be going through the motions.
"Brave" is also a departure for Pixar in that it's their first film in 13 forays that features a female protagonist. That may not sound like a big deal, but consider how girl-centric the first decade or two of Disney animated movies were. It's strange that we talk about the brave new world of computer animation, but in some sense it's still catching up.
It has become de rigueur at this point to comment on how much the animation has advanced in recent years, but that's because the digital artists keep refining and deepening their craft. The vibrant colors of the Scottish landscape seem to burst right off the screen, and the textures are so lifelike you can practically feel the coarse bristles of a bear clambering out of a river, sparkling water running off its glistening fur in jewel-like rivulets.
(Things are not helped, though, by a 3-D rendering that leaves many scenes in the forest or inside the castle murky and muddled. My advice: skip the upsell on this one.)
Perhaps the most startling feature in the film, even though it's one we see in most every scene, is the fiery red hair of heroine Merida (voice by Kelly Macdonald), the strong-willed princess. Merida cares more about archery and adventure than playing the lady of the castle, and her hair is a wild tumble matching her roving spririt.
This does not go across so well with the queen (Emma Thompson), who seems to have spent her entire adult life preparing her daughter to be wed. Royal tradition is that the first-born sons of the three great clans vie for the glory of her hand. But Merida -- who could probably best any of her suitors in a contest -- thinks she should be able to follow her heart.
Billy Connolly is a hoot as King Fergus, who had his leg torn off by a ferocious battle with a "demon bear" back when Merida was a girl, and aches for another crack at him. Robbie Coltrane, Craig Ferguson and Kevin McKidd play the heads of the three clans, and Julie Walters is the proprietor of The Crafty Carver, a shop hidden in the woods specializing in carpentry and ... other trades.
I don't want to give too much away, other than to say Merida makes a rash decision that throws the entire kingdom into turmoil. It also forces herself to take a closer look at her fractured relationship with her mother.
This is a brave step, in that in animated films featuring feminine main characters the mother figure is almost always absent, or is a blackhearted substitute.
Writer/directors Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman (who were assisted on the script by Irene Mecchi and Steve Purcell, who also co-directed) get points for taking familiar fairy tale tropes and standing them up on their head.
I just wish their original story felt fresher, and less predictable. There wasn't much that happened in the tale, either narratively or emotionally, that I didn't see coming a long way off.
I still recommend "Brave," because it's engaging and gorgeous to look at and is still better than 90 percent of the entertainment out there geared toward children. Placed against the mountaintop standards of Pixar, though, it falls a bit short.
3 stars out of four