The first and last thing to say about Brave, the new Disney-Pixar animation, is that it’s beautiful. For the first few minutes I was happy just to look at the lighting, the colours, and the landscapes. On a technical level it is without fault; one imagines a good proportion of the production time was dedicated to perfecting the wind, the rain, the grass and the heroine’s red, curly hair. Pixar has gone from strength to strength in this regard, and it’s almost too easily taken for granted that their visuals, from the space ballet of WALL-E to the underwater world of Finding Nemo, are incredible. The love and craft that go into these images, though, should not be overlooked, and “Brave” looks as good as any Pixar movie yet made; I do not say that lightly.
The story takes place in the Scottish Highlands in… the past (let’s not get into historical accuracy). A warm-hearted, red-haired King, as broad as he is tall, decides to marry off his daughter to improve relations among the four clans. His daughter is a plucky, independent Princess called Merida, who is more interested in archery than marriage. It is she who suggests her suitors hold an archery contest for her hand, in a scene with more than a whiff of Errol Flynn about it. Unhappy with the way her destiny is being chosen for her, she runs off into the woods where she happens upon a witch – a standard Disney plot device – who has a spell that could help her.
There is, however, a catch. Of course there is. Ariel grew legs and a mammalian respiratory system, but lost her voice; the Beast could be saved by true love’s kiss; Pinocchio can be a real boy if he proves himself. I won’t say what the spell cast in “Brave” does, except to say it probably creates more problems than it solves.
It is too easy to say that the problems with “Brave” arise from too much attention to the visuals and too little work on the story; the truth, I suspect, is that the story has been worked on too much. The film seems to have had a somewhat troubled production, and it can be felt in the plot. Three directors are listed: first-time director Mark Andrews, “Prince of Egypt” director Brenda Chapman, who left the project, and Steve Purcell, a name familiar to fans of ’90s point ‘n’ click adventure games (he created the brilliant “Sam & Max”). Disney more often than not sticks to tried-and-tested formulas and their films are usually quite literally written by committee; Pixar stood out by telling its own, bolder stories (if Disney had its way, the Toy Story sequels would have been straight-to-video). The story of “Brave” feels oddly compromised; it’s curiously unfocussed, and lacks the intelligence and heart that made us care so much about WALL-E, Nemo, Buzz and Woody. Whether it’s following a Disney formula is debatable, but it is following a formula, Disney or not.
That, by no means, makes it a bad film. It has much of the physical humour that Pixar has perfected over the years, and the story zips along without dragging. Children, I suspect, will enjoy it and girls may be particularly pleased to see a likeable, energetic female lead (she is Pixar’s first female protagonist). Adults will enjoy the visuals and humour, but may find themselves less involved than at other Pixar flicks; “Toy Story 3” may have had more emotional impact on parents than on their kids. The set-up in “Brave” feels slightly convoluted, as if it has one idea too many; there is a villain, of sorts, but his role feels like a leftover strand from a dropped subplot. The other villain, in a sense, is tradition, but both are dealt with in a way that felt somewhat perfunctory. The resolutions don’t come because we’ve reached the end of a story; they come because we’ve reached the end of the movie.
I am probably being overly negative, because Pixar have set the bar so high that they have only themselves to live up to. Even with its flawed story, “Brave” is in a different league to most modern animated movies. The voice-cast is particularly strong: the wonderful Kelly McDonald does a very good job of bringing Merida to life, while Billy Connolly (as the King, Fergus), Robbie Coltrane and Kevin McKidd are all well-cast. Emma Thompson voices Elinor, the Queen, and though Thompson is English she does a better Scottish accent than most Scottish people can. Thompson spends much of her life in Scotland, and rose to attention playing a red-haired Glaswegian girl in John Byrne’s terrific TV series “Tutti Frutti.”
I enjoyed “Brave,” and I imagine most people who go will enjoy it too. It’s worth it just to see the trees, the mist and the lochs. The visuals are literally worth the trip to the cinema for, but I was still admiring the visuals when I should have been too caught up in the story to notice them. It is entertaining, funny, and even a little touching. But if you listen closely, behind those spectacular images, you can hear the unmistakeable sound of boxes being ticked.
Brave opens in Scotland on August 3rd, and across the rest of the UK on August 17th.