2 1/2 out of 4 stars
If Pixar Studios was an athlete, it would be Tiger Woods. For a decade or thereabout, Woods and Pixar ruled supreme in their respective creative kingdoms. Each delivered one miracle after another and both seemed utterly incapable of failure; then came Thanksgiving Day in 2009 and "Cars 2" in 2011.
If "Brave" was a golf tournament it would be Jack Nicklaus' 2012 Memorial (which Woods won by a hair) and not the U.S. Open it wanted to be (where Woods went down in flames). A win in a non-major is still a win and on that level "Brave" is certainly better than "Cars 2" but nowhere near the greatness we've come to expect from the groundbreaking animation behemoth.
"Brave" is brave on a number of levels. It's the first period piece Pixar film (sometime around the 13th century), the first to feature a female lead (Kelly Macdonald voicing Merida) and the first where non-human characters don't talk (although they're great at charades).
From a technical perspective it's just as good as all other 3-D animated flicks (which isn't all that hard to do anymore) and the artwork is top-shelf (apart from a couple of stretches in forest settings where it's a tad too dark). The rest of it (music, character development, narrative wallop) is more like DreamWorks or present-day Disney without Pixar.
"Brave" also has considerable heart but more often than not plays out alternatively like a watered-down child's version of "Braveheart" (one character is shown wearing blue "Braveheart" war paint) or a too-intense-for-kids nature film. A note to parents while not giving too much away: there is an extended scene where one family member -- without knowing it -- might purposefully try to kill another family member.
Boiled down, "Brave" is essentially the story of a teen princess going through her anti-authority, independence phase growing pains while butting heads with her autocratic mother (Emma Thompson voicing Queen Elinor) over feminine decorum, tradition and royal expectations. Releasing this movie on Mother's Day weekend would have probably worked out far better and yielded larger bottom-line coin.
Also hurting the film in the originality department is the fact that Merida is a wiz at archery, just like other female characters in "The Hunger Games," "King Arthur," "Elektra," "Blade: Trinity," "Avatar," "Emma," "Narnia," "Hanna" and ... you get the point. Had Merida been a jouster, fencer or wielded a broadsword, it might not have seemed so been-there-done-that.
Taking a cue from far too many live-action TV sitcoms, most of the male characters in "Brave" are either oafish or clueless (particularly Billy Connelly's still affable King Fergus) and physically uncoordinated.
The one bright spot in the testosterone arena comes via Merida's younger non-speaking triplet brothers (Harris, Hubert and Hamish). Rascals each and every one, they provide all of the devious charm and comic relief and seem to be everywhere at once. If somebody at Pixar was looking for a raise and a bump up the corporate ladder, they should come up with a winning spin-off/sequel script starring the triplets; provided, of course, that "Brave" doesn't tank.
In this version of ancient Scotland, no one drinks Scotch, almost everyone has red hair and green eyes, and speaks with a too-thick brogue all of which borders on stereotype. There's also the Chieftains/Lord of the Dance-flavored score and two preceding trailers advertising the "Brave" video game and a Scottish family vacation package. Talk about your broad brush strokes and crass, shameless cross-marketing.
While we'll have to wait until next year to determine if Pixar continues to right itself (with the "Monsters, Inc." prequel "Monsters University"), we'll see if Woods can do the same in mere weeks at the British Open. It could be "Toy Story 3" where there will be lots of cheering and thrilling redemption or "Cars 2" where half of the crowd goes to see a race and the other half shows up to witness the agonizing carnage and neither is pleased with the result. (Disney/Pixar)