If the Walt Disney Studios logo were the only one on “Brave,” this film’s impeccable visuals and valiant heroine would be enough to call it a success. But “Brave” is also a Pixar Animation Studios film, and that means it has to answer to a higher standard.
Pixar’s dozen previous features, including classics like"Toy Story,""Up,""Wall-E, ""Ratatouille"and"The Incredibles,"have used subversive wit and singular characters to set a standard for computer-animated features that is the envy of the civilized world. Or at least the rest of the movie business.
And though “Brave” has much to recommend it, and is certainly head and shoulders above misfires like the botched"Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax"from Universal Pictures, its theme and characterization are too standard and its tone too broad and frantic to fit with the Pixar pedigree. Shown on its own, without any logo attached, “Brave” simply doesn’t feel as much like the Pixar movies we’ve come to expect.
Given that “Brave” does break new ground by being the first Pixar film to feature a female protagonist, that feeling of over-familiarity comes as a surprise. (“Brave” was also supposed to be the first Pixar film to be directed by a woman, Brenda Chapman, who also came up with the original story, but she was replaced by Mark Andrews and the two now share directing credit.)
It’s also a surprise because “Brave” starts out promisingly. Set in 10th century Scotland, its computer-generated look is so gorgeous and seems so authentic you can practically feel the mist forming on your 3-D glasses.
One of the must-see sights around the DunBroch family castle is the wild and crazy flaming red hair, long as she can grow it, of our young heroine, Merida. (She’s voiced by the versatile Kelly Macdonald, who has been in everything from"Trainspotting” to “No Country for Old Men.”)
Though they are devoted to each other, Merida’s parents couldn’t be more different. Her father, King Fergus (Billy Connolly), is an enormous warrior who stomps around on a wooden leg due to a Moby-Dick-type encounter with the demon bear Mor’du, while her pulled-together mother, Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson), is very much the mind behind the throne.
Merida, for her part, is clearly her father’s daughter with a spirit as untamable as her hair. A peerless archer (Katniss Everdeen, take note), this local equivalent of Annie Oakley likes nothing better than riding through the forest on her enormous Clydesdale Angus and letting those shafts fly.
The queen, however, has other ideas, wanting her daughter to act more like the lady of high birth she is. “A princess,” she says in one of her gentler admonitions, “does not chortle.” Elinor brooks no back talk and wants Merida to always be striving for perfection, while her daughter yearns to be in charge of her own fate.
Parent/child disputes of this sort are one of the bedrocks on which modern animated features are built, but the mother-daughter back and forth here gets increasingly familiar and tedious, especially for a Pixar film. When Merida says at one point, “This is so unfair, you’ve never been there for me,” it sounds like a line that could’ve been overheard at Santa Monica Place, and maybe even was.
Things get worse when the queen decides it’s time for Merida to get betrothed and, for strictly political reasons, marry the son of one of three competing clans. Unhappy with the situation, and with her choices — as well she should be, given the overly broad nature of both her suitors and their fathers — Merida makes a public nuisance of herself and then flees to the forest in a funk.
Whom should Merida chance to meet in the darkest corner of the woods but a reluctant witch (Julie Walters) who is trying to transition into a career as The Crafty Carver because of customer dissatisfaction with her spells. Nothing daunted, Merida heedlessly insists on a spell that will change her mom and in the process change her own fate.
While the specifics of that spell are best left unrevealed, it has to be said that the wrongheaded nature of this plot twist completely alters the direction of “Brave,” and not in a good way. Just because something is unexpected doesn’t make it satisfying.
Making things worse is that the spell’s results initially make Merida even more self-centered, more insistent on being blameless and in the right, than she’s been before. This is one young person who’s allowed to be too bratty for too long to make anyone happy.
This being a Disney film, you can count on the ship being righted before the close. But it’s quite a slog to get there, especially since a chunk of that time is taken up with unamusing male brawling and buffoonery.
It’s hard not to be affected by the emotional ending of “Brave,” but the magic that is Pixar’s birthright — a sense of unending enchantment that is visible in the marvelous short “La Luna” that plays before the feature — is inescapably absent more often than not.
MPAA rating: PG for some scary action and rude humor
Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes
Playing: In general release