Pixar films (and really just about every recent animated film in the past decade or two) have always been spectacular in scope, and epic in the journeys they take their characters on. The Toy Story films took the toys well beyond the safety of their owner’s home. Flik ventured off to the big city in that epic of miniature proportions A Bug’s Life. Marlin swam across vast stretches of ocean to rescue his son in Finding Nemo. Carl flies his house to a completely different continent in Up. And WALL-E actually leaves the planet to go after the object of his affection. But with Brave, Pixar has gone in a much different direction. Less epic, more intimate. But after so much success going big, does the smaller feel of this film work?

Merida is a strong-willed, fiery tough, daddy’s girl. As her daddy happens to be the head of the Scottish kingdom of DunBroch, Merida is a princess. Her mother, the Queen, tries to school her in the ways of courtly propriety. But Merida just doesn’t seem cut out for it, which is fine by her. When tradition requires her to be wed to the first born of one of the kingdom’s major clans, the princess defies her mother and her royal duty. A witch offers her a spell that will change her fate. But the consequences of the decision to take the easy way out may be more than her family and the kingdom can bear.

Live action films have it easier when it comes to scale. A movie about a group of people who spend the whole film in and around a single location that takes place over the course of two or three days? Easy and probably well received as “artsy” if done right. But with all the time and effort it takes to make an animated film most studios and writers believe it’s just not worth it to go small. A live action team with a ready script could knock out a film in a matter of weeks. Animation, whether big in scope or small, takes years either way. “So if we’re spending all that time anyway we might as well go big!”, you can almost hear them saying.

Brave is definitely an exception. Almost the entire story takes place in and around the castle and it’s adjacent land. There are very few “sets” compared to most animated films. The cast isn’t that big. And the basic story is familiar as we’ve all lived it — family struggles over expectations and duty as we grow up. The only thing different is a little bit of magic.

Some early reviews have criticized how “small”, “timid”, “weak”, “slow”, and (of course!) “wee” the film feels like. But I think they have missed the target. It is small. But that doesn’t equate to “bad”. It’s just something the reviewers aren’t used to from their animated films, especially of late. And tweaking reviewer expectations seems to be a particular specialty of Pixar’s! (“A film for kids with hardly any dialogue?” “A movie about rats cooking in Paris?” “A children’s cartoon with a septuagenarian lead?”)

While the coziness of the story is an interesting change from the norm, there are some actual issues. The overall plot itself is a bit of a rehash of several other similar type stories. While there are a few nice twists (including one that caused audible gasps throughout the theatre I was in), the finale is never in question and is easy to see coming. And I could have done with a few less naked rear ends!

Another issue that mars the ending is the fact that how Merida must reverse the spell that causes all the trouble is never fully articulated. In Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and The Little Mermaid, spells can be reversed by “true love’s kiss”. In The Princess and the Frog it takes the kiss of a princess. In Cinderella the spell will end at midnight. In Beauty and the Beast, the Beast must learn to love and earn another’s love in return. Even when the actual means of reversal is not specifically named, as in Hercules, where he has to become a “true hero”, you know it when you see it. In Brave, the spell reversal issue is much more nebulous, to the detriment of the final scenes.

But when it comes to pure enjoyment, most of the shortcomings are made up for in viewing the interactions between the characters. Pixar has outdone themselves creating realistic family connections — the good and the not so good. When you can actually see how much the characters on screen care for each other (especially when they heartbreakingly have trouble letting each other know), the audience cares about them too. And while the story line is at times derivative, that doesn’t mean it isn’t well done. The Pixar polish is all there even if the basics aren’t all that fresh. And it doesn’t hurt that the film is very funny either!

As for other issues, it’s Pixar, so the animation is top notch. But I wasn’t overly impressed with the designs of the main characters. Character animation, yes. Emotions came through with real sincerity. But the actual designs of the people and animals were a bit on the bland side. The leaders and sons of the three clans were the big exception. Each contrasted nicely and were very fun and interesting to watch. The voice actors were better than I expected based on the previews. I was especially worried that Merida’s Scottish brogue would be off-putting but very quickly it grows on you and is actually very pleasantly done by Kelly Macdonald. Billy Connolly is a mainstay it seems in these types of roles and for good reason. Emma Thompson is wonderful as both the stately Queen and the stern but loving mother. And again, the leaders and sons of the three clans, are nicely voiced as well. The music, while not necessarily memorable, fits and really brings the Scottish atmosphere to life. Similarly, the songs won’t be sung outside the theatre but are very well done.

Don’t go in expecting a wild adventure over land and sea with a cast of thousands and you’ll be charmed by a lovely film that in the end isn’t about archery or kings or magic, but about the relationship betweens parents and their children done with aplomb by the master writers at Pixar. Brave definitely hits the mark it all the ways that count.

Animated Classic or Back To The Drawing Board?

Pixar Animation Studios
June 22, 2012
100 minutes
Rated PG
directed by Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman