The idea that Disney might take a powerful step forward into the 21st century with the story of a princess fighting to protect her freedom and independence when a "traditional," outdated marriage ritual is forced on her is an exciting one, and few branches of Disney are as respected as Pixar, whose track record for quality since Toy Story in 1995 is pretty much unparalleled. Sadly, Brave represents a surprising step back for the studio, which plays things safe and predictable throughout one of their most troubled productions.
When Brave was announced, it was going to take the same step on-screen and off: the film would focus on Pixar's first female protagonist, and the picture would be helmed by the studio's first female director, Brenda Chapman. Creative differences led to Pixar replacing her with Mark Andrews in October 2010, after an unspecified amount of the film had been completed. She has a "directed by" credit at the end of the film, but how closely Brave represents her vision of the film is a mystery. Cut-and-paste rewrites are always challenging, because there's a limit to how much nuance can be fit into a scene that has to start and end in pre-defined ways, and the film feels as if it suffers from a bunch of this.
The main issue with the movie is that it's simplistic (if not outright reductive). I can actually recall the thrill of excitement at other Pixar films, when a conflict would be resolved in a brilliant way, or some new wrinkle would capture the imagination. Here, we have little more than a young girl frustrated by the traditions of her parents, and a stern parent who doesn't know how to communicate with her child. There is a real character in Merida (Kelly MacDonald), the red-haired, archery-loving princess, but she's let down by the writing and the character of Elinor (Emma Thompson), who offers little more than "mother knows best" to play off of. The jokes are also weak: physical comedy makes up way too much of Brave, and "corsets suck" gags have been tired (and wrong!) for ages.
Without giving too much away (since the film's trailers keep the true story close to the chest), Merida makes a rash decision that changes her relationship with her mother, and quickly regrets it. She and her mother are forced to work together to solve their differences before the three kingdoms Elinor has invited to vye for her Merida's hand in marriage end up tearing each other apart. It's a premise ripe for a strong mother-daughter bonding story, but Brave spends maybe ten minutes of screen time on it, with the pair bonding over fishing (more physical comedy). Disappointingly, other conflicts rely on poor communication between characters, which is another cliche I'd have counted on the talented writers and producers to avoid entirely.
Visuals provide a stunning view of Scotland, some of which is indistinguishable from live-action footage, and MacDonald has a great moment where she rises to her future as a queen in front of the warring clans. The 3D is fine, adding another layer of realism to the forests and mountains, but otherwise unnecessary, and a short film called "La Luna" is cute, if inconsequential. Sadly, the rest of the film feels like warmed-over ideas built around the "can't-miss" hook of a leading lady. Brave is a letdown, half-heartedly spinning a story about a fiercely independent woman rising to the occasion, while failing to lift itself up in the process.
Please check out my other DVDTalk DVD, Blu-Ray and theatrical reviews and/or follow me on Twitter.