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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 due to 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 loving but demanding mother Elinor (Emma Thomson), Merida has learned the necessities but is a wild lass at heart, desperate for her days off when she can ride off on horseback and perfect her archery. As for marriage, nothing could be less appealing: “I don’t want my life to be over,” she rails to her mother. “I want my freedom.”
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, whose beefy kinsmen would sooner brawl than shake your hand. 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 on her enormous steed, Angus.
It stands to reason that this first half-hour sets up expectations of a story in some way involving a renegade princess, trouble among the clans and/or a mysterious adventure involving the wisps and some Stonehenge-like arrangements that come into play. The left-turn taken by the script co-authored by Mark Andrews, Steve Purcell, Brenda Chapman and Irene Mecchi, from a story by Chapman, who co-directed with Andrews, might be embraced by those comforted by the familiar. But it’s a move that channels the film into startlingly well-worn territory, that of a conventionally toothless and whiskered old witch (Julie Walters) willing to cast a spell to grant Merida’s wish to change her mother so as to alter her own fate.
The spell, lo and behold, turns Elinor into an enormous bear, one that retains Elinor’s brain and heart but cannot speak. Thus ensues a lot of not-so-hot slapstick as bear Elinor knocks about in quarters too small for her and tries to communicate while Merida feels remorse and endeavors to reverse the spell.
What results is a film that starts off big and promising but diminishes into a rather wee thing as it chugs along, with climactic drama that is both 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 entire project lacks the imaginative leaps, unexpected jokes and sense of fun and wonder that habitually set Pixar productions apart from the pack. 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 here 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, as is Thompson, even if too many of the conversations are argumentative in a repetitive vein. Patrick Doyle‘s active and resourceful score is another major plus in a film that has played it safe instead of taking chances and going for something new.
Venue: Sydney Film Festival (opening night)
Opens: Fri,day June 22 (Disney)
Production: Pixar Animation Studios
Voices: Kelly Macdonald, Billy Connolly, Emma Thompson, Julie Walters, Robbie Coltrane, Kevin McKidd, Craig Ferguson, Sally Kinghom, Eilidh Fraser, Peigi Barker, Steven Cree, Steve Purcell, Callum O’Neill, Patrick Doyle, John Ratzenberger
Directors: Mark Andrews, Brenda Chapman
Co-director: Steve Purcell
Screenwriters: Mark Andrews, Steve Purcell, Brenda Chapman, Irene Mecchi, story by Brenda Chapman
Producer: Katherine Sarafian
Executive producers: John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton, Pete Docter
Directors of photography: Robert Anderson (camera), Danielle Feinberg (lighting)
Production designer: Steve Pilcher
Editor: Nicholas C. Smith
Music: Patrick Doyle
PG rating, 93 minutes
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