Pixar's 13th feature starts off big but diminishes into a rather wee thing as it chugs along.
The season's latest feature destined to boost the demand for kids' archery lessons, Brave might disappoint many ardent Pixar loyalists while simultaneously delighting old-time Disney fans.
The 13th animated feature from the world's most consistently successful film company is its first set in that version of the past forever favored by Disney, that of princesses, kings, queens, witches, evil spells and prankish secondary characters. For all its pictorial and vocal beauty, the film's emotional line and dramatic contrivances are both more familiar and less inventive than what's usually delivered by the studio. Younger kids won't mind, but many viewers accustomed to relying upon Pixar for something special will feel a sense of letdown because of the lack of adventurousness. A muscular box-office ride is virtually a given.
Part of the problem is that Brave never becomes the film that seems to be promised at the outset. After a beautiful and eventful prologue in which flaming-maned Scottish princess Merida (Kelly Macdonald) receives an archery bow for her birthday, glimpses blue will-o'-the-wisps floating through the forest and sees her father, King Fergus (Billy Connolly), lose a leg to a ferocious bear, the action jumps ahead to her adolescence and her obligation to get married. Under the strict tutelage of her mother, Elinor (Emma Thompson), Merida has learned the necessities but is a wild lass at heart. As for marriage, nothing could be less appealing: "I don't want my life to be over," she rails to her mother.
One look at the top suitors offered up by the three other leading clans and you can see what she means; they're the three stooges of Scotland. Once Merida shows them all up in an archery contest and her furious mother tosses her daughter's prize bow in the fireplace, the headstrong girl takes off.
This first half-hour sets up expectations of mysterious adventure, but the script channels the film into startlingly well-worn territory, that of a conventionally toothless and whiskered old witch. What results is drama that is too conveniently wrapped up and hinges on magical elements that are somewhat confusing to boot. Not only is the tale laden with standard-issue fairy-tale and familiar girl-empowerment tropes, but the project lacks the imaginative leaps, unexpected jokes and sense of fun and wonder that habitually set Pixar productions apart. Its ideas seem earthbound.
On a sensory level, however, Brave is almost entirely a delight. The wild beauty of Scotland, of the verdant forests and the craggy peaks, is lovingly rendered with a gorgeous palette of painterly colors and in very agreeable 3D. Even better, the voicings are among the most exceptional and pleasurable of any animated film you might care to name. Working in pronounced Scottish accents that, to be sure, don't approach the often undecipherable ones heard in Ken Loach films, Scottish actors Macdonald and Connolly are a joy to listen to.
Opens: Friday, June 22 (Disney)
Cast: Kelly Macdonald, Billy Connolly, Emma Thompson, Julie Walters, Robbie Coltrane
Directors: Mark Andrews, Brenda Chapman Rated PG, 93 minutes