Scotland… the rolling hills, sun-dappled glens and picturesque lochs all come to mind, but for Pixar’s Brave we head into the rugged highlands, terrain just as inviting with towering castles and mountains that penetrate the sky, making for a landscape so beautiful you’d think only dreams could conjure such majesty. Such a place seems perfect for the visionary wizards at Pixar. The history of the area is equally ripe with inspiration and with Brave directors Brenda Chapman and Mark Andrews attempt to shape a small piece of Scottish history of their own. Unfortunately, they fail miserably.
To say Brave is the worst film to come out of Pixar to date is a bit misleading. Considering most would probably take Pixar’s worst over so many other studios’ best is a reality and yes, I know the Cars franchise has its detractors. Lightning McQueen and friends didn’t make for perfect films, but I’d argue for Cars and its sequel every day of the week before supporting this tedious excuse for a story ever again.
If it wasn’t for the stunning animation and one specific riverside scene where they almost capture authentic emotion, you’d be hard-pressed to convince me Brave actually was a Pixar film. There is no life; no heart to it. The story is an afterthought and, to be quite honest, I’m surprised it was ever green lit.
After starting out under the title The Bear and the Bow with Reese Witherspoon set to voice the lead character, the film was scheduled for Christmas 2011. Then, talk quieted until it was suddenly revealed Chapman was off the project midway through production, replaced by Andrews and the film would now be titled Brave. The story idea came from Chapman and I have no clue when the three additional credited screenwriters — Andrews, Steve Purcell and Irene Mecchi — came aboard the production, but it plays on the screen like a story mangled into incoherence. In fact, to say it’s much of a story at all is a stretch.
Brave begins with us getting to know princess Merida, appropriately voiced by the talented Scottish actress Kelly Macdonald (“Boardwalk Empire”). Merida is a spirited and adventurous young girl, obsessed with shooting her bow and roaming free over the land. Her mother (Emma Thompson), however, expects her to fulfill her duties as a princess and is preparing her for the day in which she will pick a suitor from one of the three neighboring clans. As you’d expect, that day has arrived, but Merida isn’t interested.
It’s at this point you can see entirely what they were going for; a strong willed heroine that won’t conform to tradition against her will. She’s not against marriage entirely (though she sort of is), but she’s certainly not in favor of being forced into doing so, and who can blame her? On top of that, once you see the three jokers vying for her hand you too would want to run away, which is exactly what Merida does, deep into the forest where we’ve already seen hints of magic before and will soon see more.
After making her escape on her trusty steed, Merida comes to rest in the middle of some strange Stonehenge-esque structure when she notices a trail of tiny blue flames known as Wisps. She remembers these from her childhood and the story of how they can change a person’s fate, something she most certainly wants to do in her efforts to rebel against her mother.
Deeper into the forest she goes until she happens on a small house built into a hillside. Inside resides a witch (voiced by Julie Walters) whom Merida convinces to concoct a spell to help change her fate, a decision that will not only affect her, but her whole family.
I only wish I could go into what happens next and it’s killing me not to, but I see no reason in spoiling a moment you won’t believe is all they came up with after what was actually a decent enough setup. By the film’s end I was left staring at the screen, searching for any rhyme or reason Chapman and Andrews would lead Pixar’s team of talented storytellers down a road that led nowhere.
One thing can be said, they definitely didn’t go for cliche, but in their attempt to create Pixar’s first female heroine they ended up creating a brat of a child whose accomplishments appear to be more self-serving than deserved, even if we know better. Her mother may have been strict and a bad communicator, but if they wanted the audience to care one lick for the character that goes pouting off into the woods when she doesn’t get her way, it’s best to make sure she’s given a chance to redeem herself or at least learn from the situation. I’m not convinced she was able to accomplish either of those goals.
On a more positive note, the animation is spectacular. Stories leading up to the film’s release have been sure to point out the technology that went into creating Merida’s fiery nest of red hair and the 1,500 individually sculpted curves necessary to tame it. This is actually a fact you better hold onto if you’re looking to appreciate anything this film has to offer, because there isn’t much more as even the color is drained out of the story as the film moves on.
Dark forests are the order of the day, the blue Wisps dancing in the darkness and Merida’s red hair burning hot, but for a film set in such a lush environment it was a shame to see not only the story devoid of appeal, but the landscape as well.
In terms of overall entertainment, I got a few chuckles out of Merida’s tart-thieving younger brothers — Hamish, Harris and Hubert — but these wordless little triplets were nothing more than tame comedy relief in-between moments of monotony as I never cared where the story would ultimately end, I only wished it would do so and do so quickly.
It’s a shame this film is such a miss. It’s a wasted opportunity and probably the first Pixar film I have ever seen that I absolutely have zero desire to ever visit again. Brave is a different kind of “bad” film. You can see the talent at work, but it lacks direction and purpose. I get the feeling someone felt there was something important they wanted to say, but were either too scared to say it or just couldn’t find the words. Either way, it doesn’t work, and the story should have been trashed and rewritten following the end of Act One.