(Mark Andrews, 2012, USA)
If Pixar’s yearly instalments prove anything in the face of an expanding deluge of CGI-animation in mainstream cinema, it’s that technical ingenuity and cogitated storytelling are tantamount to the studio’s adversity to Dreamworks-esque pandering to pop culture references and pore clogging lowest common denominator foibles. Having maintained a veritable string of critical and financial hits that read as a how-to guide for originality and broad familial appeal, the animation wunderkinds behind Toy Story (1995), The Incredibles (2004) and Wall-E (2008) – to name but a few – turn their attentions to ancient Scotland in Brave, a drastic change of pace for Pixar in more ways than one.
Foregoing the glossy sheen of last year’s dreary Cars 2 (their only unfavourably received title in a twelve-strong library) in favour of a verdant palette and a story grounded in the fairy tale aesthetics of a typical Disney outing, this Scottish fable is typically, lusciously rendered but feels peculiarly empty, its innards spoiled by adherence to a formula numerously enjoyed by the studio’s parent company. Much like Disney’s 2010 money-spinner Tangled, Brave boasts a strong female protagonist (Pixar’s first) and a narrative awash with magic and stock mythology, but the film feels unmediated and plain, the outcome of a muddied production that saw the reins changing hands from Brenda Chapman to Mark Andrews, two directorial debutants.
Starring a predominantly Scottish voice cast – save for Julie Walters’ scheming but puzzlingly underused Witch, the film sees Kelly MacDonald play teenager Merida, a flame-haired gallivanter, thrill seeker and archery pro whose role as princess to a strangely unpopulated kingdom is thrust upon her by her insistent mother Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson, donning an authentic Scottish twang) and verbose father King Fergus (Billy Connolly). Insisting that her fate should not be a predetermined decision made without her consent, and inspired by her parents’ insistence that she be betrothed to one of the firstborn sons of the three neighbouring clans, Merida decides to alter her destiny by cursing her mother with an ill-gotten spell that turns her into a bear. In her frantic attempts at reversing the jinx, Merida begins to embrace her mother’s loving perseverance, paving the way for a redeemable catharsis that is underserved by a rushed third act.
Although the film flaunts perhaps the studios’ most technologically polished animation to date, with Merida’s flowingly untamed red locks and a sweeping melange of mountainous camera angles serving as particular highlights, the forgettable story ultimately undoes the gentle motifs it concocts in the hasty opening act. Far removed from their often celebrated narrative creativity, seen in particular with the joyously bonkers gambit in Pete Docter’s wondrous UP (2009), Pixar here assume that relying on conventional modes of storytelling serves as a break from what they have become particularly known for, but this leads to ill-paced results. Merida’s coming of age and Elinor’s tenure as a beastly mammal – which in itself smacks of Disney’s mediocre Brother Bear (2003) both in story and design – feel premature and diminished by a variety of plot strands that are introduced and swiftly forgotten. Despite the film succeeding as a child-aimed ditty, complete with relentless slapstick and inescapable kilt gags, the film feels decidedly weightless, and although Pixar may not be jumping the proverbial shark just yet, the once unstoppable studio can be seen to be burrowing deeper into the shadow of the times when they were truly remarkable.