Having spent its existence striving to define itself apart from its parent studio, it seems odd that the latest offering from animation innovators Pixar should be so, well, Disney-like.
From its central premise of the fittingly flame-haired princess Merida (Kelly Macdonald) struggling to live her own life against the wishes of her parents, strict traditionalist Elinor (Emma Thompson) and jovial peg-legged Fergus (Billy Connolly), shades of many a Disney great, from Aladdin and Pocahontas to The Little Mermaid and Mulan can be drawn. With the distinctly Pixar-esque Wreck-It Ralph due out from the Walt Disney Studios stable next year, it marks a curious role reversal. For a studio that has travelled into outer space (WALL-E) and the depths of the ocean (Finding Nemo), the cynic would deem the Scottish Highlands to constitute setting the bar a bit low.
Not that Pixar have any intentions of lowering their standards any time soon. We’re used to Pixar films looking good, but here, the more naturalistic setting gives the design bods the chance to flex their muscles of inspiration in a manner that surpasses even their past achievements. From the word go, everything is so beautifully, painstakingly rendered, from the currents of the river to the Lord Of The Rings-esque sweeping shots of the landscape. It is immersive to the extent that it could well be the best-looking feature in the Pixar canon. Never been to Scotland? You’ll want to after this.
The plot manages to inhabit this stunning environment, but it doesn’t quite bring it to life in the way you’d hope. With the exception of the core trio of Merida, Elinor and Fergus, no other characters really stamp their mark on the film, although there is the usual gaggle of amusing comic relief supporting cast – notably in the form of Merida’s three potential suitors. There are instances, however, of personalities that seem oddly out of place, notably Julie Walters’ Witch, who gamely prods the plot along and then cheerfully buggers off for the rest of the film. Similarly, Merida’s triplet brothers feel like a concession to the younger audience – a quandary Pixar is usually so adept at avoiding.
The central character, Merida, stands out among the most iconic of Disney heroines: headstrong and forthright, she personifies the overriding message of Brave in a way that isn’t obtrusive or shoe-horned. It’s also refreshing to see a female character who isn’t defined by the pursuit of a handsome male; she simply wants to be able to decide her own fate. Her journey may not encompass traversing the globe or entering the unknown, but it’s every bit as poignant a rites of passage as anything you’ve seen on the big (or small) screen. A lot of the credit for this has to go to Kelly Macdonald, who puts in a brilliantly committed performance, ably stepping up the task of voicing a character under half her age.
Ultimately, Brave doesn’t quite carry the same emotional heft as Up or the depth of material of Toy Story, but it successfully steps outside the boundaries of what seems like a rather conventional tale at the outset, and subsequently elevates it into something else entirely. Funny and affecting, yet sincere in its avowal of individuality, Brave is another triumph for the studio, and guaranteed to leave you with an internal warmth that few films manage to ape. Just when you think Pixar are reaching the bottom of their box of tricks, they add another string to their bow. And what a string…