Just over twenty-five years into their existence as Pixar and over fifteen years since they shifted the foundations of film with Toy Story, the computer animation studio that can make as much of a claim towards auteurship as any major director over the course of the past decade has finally reached something of a crossroads. Following an enviable string of commercial and critical successes, they finally stumbled, at least on the latter front, with last year’s Cars 2, which was already a sequel to the sole artistic blunder in the studio’s portfolio. Now that Pixar has apparently fully committed to exploiting past successes as much as creating completely fresh wonderment, the genuinely original works could potentially wind up facing a different level of scrutiny. For all the acclaim, the creative personnel at Pixar have rarely expressed much loftier aspirations than making great entertainment. The question is a simple one, then: have the audience expectations outpaced what the artists at Pixar really want to achieve?
Well before it was ever released, there was an extensive pile-up of concerns about what Brave represented for Pixar. It’s their first attempt at something that looks and feels like a more traditional Disney fairy tale and, inspiring far more online scuttlebutt, it was the first time that the studio had a female protagonist. Going along with the latter point, they also initially had a female director on the project, another studio first. While Brenda Chapman remains credited as one of the directors, she was replaced midway through production by Mark Andrews, a not uncommon practice at Pixar, but one that carried with it all sorts of added import given the gender dynamics already at play in the film. (Brave also lists Steve Purcell, a longtime animator and creator of comicdom’s Sam & Max, as co-director.) It’s perhaps more than any sweet, simple adventure could be expected to bear.
Brave is disarmingly straightforward and familiar. The story follows Merida, voiced by Kelly Macdonald, the princess of a vast Scottish kingdom with a gigantic tousle of curly red hair and a preference for riding through the woods and shooting her bow and arrow over the dull decorum of learning to be a proper, regal lady. The conflicting parts of her daily existence come to a head when the tradition of allowing suitors to try and win her hand in a competition of physical prowess is invoked, and Merida figures out a way to disrupt the system, much to the dismay of her queenly mother, voiced by Emma Thompson. In the well-establish manner of youthful, headstrong heroines, Merida flees the castle, quickly setting up a notable transformation that is, interestingly enough, almost entirely unmentioned in promotion of the film, despite comprising most of the action.
The film is funny, warm, reasonably clever and imbued with just the right amount of smart alec charm. It also doesn’t transcend its conventional trappings, most clearly seen in the closing sequence. While the bulk of the Pixar filmography boasts bravura final acts practically reverberating with storytelling ingenuity, Brave concludes with the sort of flavorlessly kinetic rugby scrum of colors and lines that has ended any number of animated features. the filmmakers manage to build in some added emotional heft to the scene, thanks to their solid capabilities with storytelling throughout, but it’s still more of a slump to the finish than some sort of breathtaking fireworks finale.
Without the hopping desk lamp ushering the film to its beginning, I suspect that Brave might be getting a more enthusiastic reception from critics, in the same way that a fine but largely undistinguished film such as How to Train Your Dragon looks like high art when placed in a row with the other desperate grabs for endlessly recyclable franchises from DreamWorks Animation. I’d like to think my mild reservations about the film have less to do with the reputation that precedes it than an honest reaction to what’s on screen, but I’m not entirely confident of that. I was consistently amused and even admired the sharper edges, but I was also extremely aware of everything Brave doesn’t quite manage to be, how it never gets that transporting, daring quality that Pixar has delivered in the majority of their films. Brave is the title, but how will the studio proceed if that same word is no longer the best description of their artistic ethos?