WASHINGTON – Take the sweeping mountainsides of “Braveheart,” lop the “heart” off the title and run it all through computer animation.
“Brave” is Pixar’s thirteenth flick, and its tenth original concept if you lump sequels like “Toy Story 3” and “Cars 2” with their originals. Of the 10, it may be my least favorite, but it’s not bad by any means. Let’s just say it’s subpar by Pixar’s own super high standards. After all, this is the go-to animation studio that’s churned out one masterpiece after another.
It tells the tale of a young teen, rebelling against her mother’s strict code, only to gain respect for her sacrifices. Merida (Kelly Macdonald) is a spunky archer who bucks the Medieval mindset of parents, King Fergus (Billy Connolly) Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson). They host a round of sporting games to find a suitor for their daughter’s betrothal, drawing contenders from three nearby rulers — Lord Macintosh (Craig Ferguson), Lord MacGuffin (Kevin McKidd) and Lord Dingwall (Robbie Coltrane).
I was enthralled by Act One, from Merida’s adolescent pushback against her mother, to her rebellion at the sporting tournament. I even loved the plot point of a hilarious witch disguised as a woodcarver, giving Merida a potion she hopes will change her mother.
However, when the mother finally eats the potion, the film takes a questionable turn. I won’t spoil the twist, but it sends the movie in a direction that may not have been the best choice.
The same goes for the kingdom’s ancient legend of four brothers, and the evil one who branched out on his own. The writers can’t decide whether this should be the antagonist, or whether it should be Merida’s mother. How fitting that they both suffer the same “grisly” fate.
Such plot decisions are my only qualms. Everything else is superb: the shot selections (horse-riding montages and tracking shots), visual storytelling (a symbolic “rip” on a family mural; chess pieces holding up the four corners of a chess board), directorial concepts (Merida’s slow-mo release of her arrow), whimsical fantasy (the supernatural Wisps), character mannerisms (the twitching and posturing of the three male suitors), allusions to Disney classics (an arrow splitting another like “Robin Hood”), and Pixar’s penchant for comic relief (a trio of redhead toddler pranksters steal the show). The film even pushes the envelope with harmless nudity, mining laughs from a few bare butts.
Needless to say, the computer animation is impressive as always. I marveled at how Pixar’s animators made Merida’s stringy red hair look so realistic. As she bounced around, I felt like I was watching a 3D ball of red yarn unravel before my eyes. Combine this with fantastic sound design, from waving flags to galloping hooves, and “Brave” is a sensory pleasure.
If you want a fun summer movie that will make the kids laugh and cement your importance as parents, “Brave” is a worthy weekend outing. But if you compare it to Pixar’s pedigree, hoping for something as original as “Toy Story,” as entertaining as “Finding Nemo” or as magical as “WALL-E,” you’ll be disappointed.