Pixar films carry a certain amount of expectation with them purely by dint of being Pixar films. A studio that has made Toy Story, The Incredibles, and Up has a lot to lose by continuing to put out films because no matter how tall they stand above the rabble, if they fail to measure up just as strongly against their own product they are popularly considered to be failures. Is it fair to expect every film to be a masterpiece with the emotional and narrative power of Up or Toy Story 3? No.
That may sound like an inauspicious way to begin a review, but trust me when I say that I only set off on that path in order to defend myself against people who may say that I am rating Brave too highly. This is because, while it may not be in the top tier of films made by Pixar, it is still a solid, well-told, expertly crafted film that is filled with fun and thrilling moments and performed by some excellent voice talents.
To give away too much of the story would be to betray Brave‘s surprisingly enigmatic marketing. However, I feel safe in giving the following rundown – Merida is the princess of a royal family that is responsible for keeping a number of warring clans united. On the day her hand in marriage is to be won in a competition, Merida breaks with tradition, shames her suitors, and declares her desire for independence from the path set for her by her mother. From there the plot takes a number of unexpected turns, all of which lead to moments of discovery, self-actualization, humor, and excitement.
A lot of this is just par for the course for Pixar, but the points bear repeating. First there is the lush, groundbreaking visual style. Merida has a set of flowing, fiery red locks that at times was just distracting because of its physical fidelity. It’s the kind of effect that is simple, and should not be a massive and stunning achievement, but it is. Not only that, but so much of your humor is subtle, relegated to the background of scenes that seemingly flash by. It’s the kind of nuanced, layered visual storytelling that we expect from Pixar. These elements are irrefutably marvelous.
Where Brave may stumble for some is in your story and character arcs. In the past Pixar has tackled some heady, existentially weighty ideas, so this film spending time in a simpler story about family and fate and making your own way in the world may seem like a step back. The thing is, Brave doesn’t stumble in its execution, and it doesn’t make pretensions toward being more than it is. If the moral message is slight, and if the character progressions are predictable, I can see that as being disheartening for someone who was expecting yet another paradigm-redefining motion picture, but I was thoroughly entertained. The slightness and simplicity of Brave‘s message isn’t something I can ignore or refute, but at the same time I don’t think that it is something I need to defend.
We do suffer from a form of bias of preconception for certain films. We expect certain directors or production companies or writers who have achieved a sublime greatness in the past to never step down from their rarified perch. This sometimes works against us, though, especially in the critical capacity. Sure, it may be vaguely disappointing to see someone we know is capable of much more deliver something that is merely excellent rather than transcendant, but that shouldn’t require us to discount the expert artistry still on display.
So it is with Brave. Does it measure up against the best of Pixar? No, perhaps not. But divorced of its heritage, and judged as a film on its own terms, Brave more that manages to elevate itself above the horde and stake its claim as an artful, engaging film.