At the centre of this earnestly conceived fable is Merida (Kelly Macdonald), princess of the clan Dingwall who reign in the Scottish highlands, gorgeously rendered here by some of Pixar's most stunning animation to date, courtesy of their newly programmed Presto animation system. Merida is in the illustrious but unenviable position of being able to sire peace between hers and three rival clans if she would only willingly marry one of their first born sons, as prescribed by tradition. No pressure, kid. It would certainly please her mother, Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson), who spends no small amount of effort primping her daughter to be a perfect lady. But Merida is a tomboy of fiery, untamable disposition – with fiery, untamable hair to match – who would much rather spend her days riding out with her trusty bow and a quiver of arrows than resign herself to a lifetime of wifehood. After one particularly heated confrontation with mom, she takes off into the woods, where the mystical will o' the wisps, lighting up the forest floor like floating pilot lights, lead her to a witch's hut. She bargains with the batty old woman (Julie Walters) for a spell that will change her mother's mind about the whole marriage thing, but failing to be specific, gets a spell with more ursine consequences than she expected.
For a film that in many respects is about defying tradition, it seems somewhat appropriate that Pixar is deviating from their own tradition, opting for a more simplistic narrative with few artistic risks and a more calculated payoff. By daring to take the typical route, Pixar has added an atypical entry to their stacked filmography. True, it lacks the thematic density of WALL-E or Ratatouille, and true, it doesn't wield the emotional power of Finding Nemo or Up or the Toy Story series, but the themes and emotions Brave does dabble in do indeed “ring with truths”. One, with which female audiences will no doubt relate, is the strained mother-daughter relationship which serves as the backbone of the narrative; a formulaic but sincere character arc that gives the film its heart. It's no more complicated than the concept of controlling one's own fate, another theme that the writers don't waste any time over-thinking. It would have been nice to see them fully embrace one of the story's darker undertones, that being the war waged within ourselves between animalism and human nature, but it's only flirted with indirectly.
In terms of craftsmanship, Brave loses no ground on its animated predecessors. In fact, it probably surpasses them. The film's ability to evoke subtext and foreshadowing through artfully composed frames is one of its strongest assets, to say nothing of its sheer aesthetic beauty. The vocal performances and character animation are superb, particularly for Merida, who is compelling and genuine as Pixar's first female lead. Most of the supporting characters are used for bawdy comic relief, not all of which works, but they're still entertainingly realized. Special mention to Merida's three impish brothers, who don't need amusing Scottish brogues to get laughs in every scene they pop up. Patrick Doyle, only Pixar's fourth composer, provides a rich score, while Gaelic singer Julie Fowlis completes the soundtrack by performing a couple of original tunes penned by Alex Mandel. As always, Gary Rydstrom delivers terrific sound effects, including a whole library of bear vocalizations and the single best arrow-splitting you've ever heard on screen.
Harsher critics of the film have levied rather barbed slings and (dare I say it) arrows against Brave for feeling more like a high-caliber Disney film than a high-caliber Pixar one, which is a backhanded euphemism for complaining that it doesn't hold a candle to the lofty standards Pixar has set for itself in the past. It could be that the long arms of the mouse house have indeed managed to worm their way into Pixar's self-anointed “creative safe haven”, although perhaps that slogan no longer applies after director Brenda Chapman, who spent years developing the original concept, was let go and replaced by Mark Andrews due to creative differences. Usually Pixar's cyclical system of critiquing and workshopping their scripts yields excellent results, but for whatever reason, Brave does carry of whiff of too many cooks in the kitchen. All that said, it's hardly a legitimate grudge to hold against the film that it isn't up to par with the studios' impressive legacy. Does it make sense to give a 'C' grade to an 'A' student for submitting 'B'-level work? Of course not, and while there can be no argument that Brave is less ambitious and complex than Pixar's masterworks, it is still a fleet and wonderfully imagined yarn that does indeed “ring with truths”.
*** out of ****