Movie Review: Brave

Princess Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald) in "Brave"

By Kimberly Gadette (doddleNEWS)

It’s possible that 2012 will be known as the year that young girls’ affinity for soccer was shot through the heart and replaced with archery. Between The Hunger Games‘ Katniss and Brave‘s Merida, this could be the start of something, um, arrow-dynamic.

Here’s another start of a sort: It seems that after twelve animated features, Pixar (teamed with Disney), has finally gone the Pocahontas/Mulan/Tiana/Rapunzel route, centering its story around a female protagonist. While she’s a princess (aren’t they always?), she also happens to be a skilled archer. And may we say: Merida, take a bow.

Princess status aside, groundbreaking precedents include the fact that our heroine (voiced by Kelly Macdonald) is not a motherless child contending with some evil stepparent bent on her destruction. She neither looks for rescue from any potential beaus, nor does she feel compelled to rescue them in turn. Instead, set in a stunning Scottish 3D countryside, Merida is her own tomboy, taking after her gregarious father King Fergus (voiced by Billy Connolly), rather than her rigidly traditional, yet loving mother Queen Elinor (voiced by Emma Thompson). When ancient custom states that each of the three leaders from the neighboring tribes present a son to vie for Merida’s hand in marriage, Merida bests all of her would-be suitors in a game of archery. Refusing to marry, she escapes deep into the forest, hoping to find a different kind of fate. If only she hadn’t happened upon that suspiciously witchy woman (Julie Walters). Next thing she knows, her mother – who used to be a bear in the morning – is now a bear 24/7.

Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald) reaching for paw-sible rescue in "Brave"

If the filmmakers had put even half as much effort into the screenplay as they did the glorious production design – as well as the authentic, native Scottish score – Brave might have been a standout. With story credit accorded to Brenda Chapman, and screenwriting credit shared among Chapman, Mark Andrews, Steve Purcell and Irene Mecchi, the plot is woefully flat. (While Chapman created the original mother-daughter plotline, she was ultimately dismissed as Brave‘s director in favor of long-time Pixar story supervisor Mark Andrews. A wry irony, given the pro-female tone of the film itself.) Though Brave is freed from the usual Disney sidekick, we’re also unfortunately freed from a subplot, resulting in the second half of the film turning into a laborious chase scene. Reminiscent of the elongated hunt for the Beast in Beauty and the Beast, the initial suspense grows unduly uncomfortable … with the additional concern that young children may become traumatized with the tracking and possible slaying of the mother bear. In another misstep, Merida’s adorable young triplet brothers fall under the same curse as the mother – however, this plot point is dispatched to the background. The filmmakers simply ignore the issue by leaving the tots off screen for a surprisingly long interval. When the triplets finally show up again, now as baby bears, neither Merida nor the father is all that concerned. Seriously?

Additionally, Brave could have benefitted from more humor, such as the early, merry scene with Merida riding her horse Angus through the Scottish Highlands. Later, when the daughter has to teach her now-ursine mama how to catch fish in a fast-moving river, the scene allows for marvelous character-based comedy. But when the mother unexpectedly turns vicious, the tone seems wrong. We understand that the clock is ticking and mom has only a certain amount of time before she loses all human sensibilities – but by exhibiting her darker nature prematurely, the filmmakers squander a well-constructed scene of great delight.

Plot problems aside, the look of the film is utterly enchanting. Recalling reading about the challenges that the Pixar animators dealt with during the making of 2007′s Ratatouille – such as having to depict rushing water, or the infinitesimal movement of animal fur, or a credible source of light – it is amazing that today, a mere five years later, the methodology has grown in exponentially animated leaps and bounds. Merida’s hair alone, a luscious abundance of bouncing, carrot-red corkscrews, is a wonder unto itself. As is the imposing medieval stone castle, with its singular light shining down from above. The cobalt blue will o’ the wisps, the fog enshrouding a mystical forest, the 3D gallop over the land … all eye-filling scenes of artistic excellence.

The ensemble performs seamlessly, the voices laced with a Scottish flavor that doesn’t sacrifice comprehension. In particular, Macdonald’s and Connolly’s spirited renditions offer a welcome spark.

It’s not that Pixar’s thirteenth film in seventeen years is deficient. It’s just that this particular studio has historically set the bar so very high … it’s as if it shot itself in the foot. With an arrow, of course.

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Rating on a scale of 5 kilting fields: 3.5

Release date: June 22, 2012
Directed by: Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman
Screenplay by: Mark Andrews, Steve Purcell and Brenda Chapman & Irene Mecchi
Story by: Brenda Chapman
Voice Cast: Kelly Macdonald, Billy Connolly, Emma Thompson, Robbie Coltrane, Kevin McKidd, Craig Ferguson, Julie Walters
Rating: PG
Running Time: 95 minutes

About Kimberly Gadette

Film critic Kimberly Gadette, born and raised in movie-centric L.A., believes celluloid may very well be a part of her DNA. Having received her BA and MFA from UCLA's School of Theater, Film & Television, she spent many of her formative years as an actress (film, tv, commercials, stage) before she literally changed perspective, finding a whole new POV from the other side of the camera. You can find her last 450+ reviews on Rotten Tomatoes (www.rottentomatoes.com/critic/kimberly-gadette/). Other than taking the occasional side trip to Cannes or Sundance, you can find her at the movies ... sitting in the dark as usual.

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