The problem with believing in the “Pixar Magic” is it becomes an ineffable catch-all for everything that once made Pixar animated family films better than the rest of their ilk. Sure Pixar films are usually visually impeccable, well-plotted with thought-out characters, and entertaining and moving on multiple levels.
But in the past there’s been that indescribable something else—an attention to both animation and story details? A deft touch balancing warmth and humor for both kids and parents? The sort of seemingly natural, strong creative instincts that in fact come from very hard work over several years across large groups of artists and writers?
Lately, however, there’ve been growing rumblings that the Pixar Magic is gone, or at least temporarily misplaced. Sure some of that is the natural cycle of entertainment and commerce—being on top for over a decade leaves you nowhere to go but down, and as the animation studio has become more and more corporately melded to Disney some of the Mouse’s monolithic obsession with product marketing and the sequel-hungry bottom lines of shareholders has begun to rub off on the once-delightful creative purity of Pixar. (*cough*Cars 2*cough*).
Like it or not, Pixar has become a brand, and with all those Oscars and box-office records comes a yoke that doesn’t always fit well with the studio’s one-time idiosyncratic imagination and earnest, free-spirited heart. The real problem, we find, with believing in the Pixar Magic isn’t just being unable to accurately define what it is, but having trouble describing what’s missing when it’s gone.
Brave soars into theaters as the first Pixar film to focus on a female heroine, the first Pixar fairytale, and tellingly the first Pixar movie in three years that’s not a sequel. All signs pointed to a glorious Gaelic revival of the Pixar Touch, all troublesome memories of Larry the Cable Guy automotive fart jokes swept away by stirring adventure and those gorgeous Scottish landscapes.
Sure Brave had its share of behind-the-scene rough patches, with the original director Brenda Chapman, Pixar’s first female helmer, eventually nudged aside mid-production to share the top credit with Mark Andrews. But quite a few of what we now consider Pixar “classics” had similarly rocky production histories.
Things start out promisingly enough with the introduction of Merida (voiced with aching authenticity by Kelly Macdonald, always welcome in any film). She’s a young Medieval Scottish princess whose gloriously unruly Pre-Raphaelite cascade is a visual treat that might have overpowered a lesser-drawn character. As it is, Macdonald’s charm and some terrific writing fill Merida with so much winning personality her bonfire of curls almost becomes secondary.
Naturally, as with all Disney princesses these days, Merida is a rebellious tom boy who prefers archery to needlepoint and understandably bristles at her parents’ plan to marry her off to one of three comically varied but equally unsuitable suitors. (Emma Thompson is the tradition-bound Queen, while Billy Connelly, naturally, plays the King as a mountain of boisterous geniality. All are kept on their toes by Merida’s little brothers, a toddling, terrorizing pack of rambunctious, red-headed triplets.)
Soon Merida has kicked free of her monarchical marital duties and fled into the Scottish hills and forests, where, this being a fairytale, she explores mystical standing stones, follows glowing Will O’ the Wisps, and ends up seeking a solution to what she feels is her detoured destiny with a spell from a kindly but misguided witch (Julie Walters). Best of all, everything taking place outside the castle is surrounded by a panorama of Highland beauty, with the landscape, plants, animals, and waterfalls and rapids painted dazzlingly close to photo realism. This is easily the loveliest Pixar film yet.
All well and good, but ironically it’s with the deployment of the potion and the usual unintended results that Brave quickly loses its way. For starters, the film sets aside the notion of Merida going off and having the sorts of rollicking adventures one might expect from a lass so at home shooting a bow from horseback.
Instead writers Mark Andrews, Steve Purcell, Brenda Chapman, and Irene Mecchi chose to focus on Merida’s rocky relationship with her mother, the Queen—a theme they felt, perhaps rightly, was of more interest to young female viewers than slaying bears. (The pursuit of certain plot twists, and the fact that the King is a boorishly obsessed bear slayer, underscore the film makers’ intent to turn around the typical “boys’ adventure” tropes.)
Unfortunately, that chosen tale of mother-daughter conflict, while admirable, isn’t told with much daring or boldness either. Interpersonal relationships are often at the core of Pixar films, but here they feel carelessly fumbled. There’s plenty of talk about bravery and friendship, but once-weighty issues are quickly resolved during sun-dappled montages. “Look how beautiful it all is, and by the way, we’ve settled our differences during this pretty but bland faux folk song.” There’s a startling lack of soul to it all, leaving Merida to wallow as one of Pixar’s very best characters in one of its most emotionally lackluster films.
This is relative, of course, and as the increasingly familiar saw goes, even the least Pixar film is still more pleasingly entertaining than most other animated offerings. But with all the focus on this being the studio’s first “girl-centric” film, there’s a constant sense of Brave trying too hard to fulfill all its cultural and gender duties. It sports all the trappings of a delightful, adventurous fable, but the film never feels like it believes its own fairy tale.
With too little genuine wit and not enough honest heart, proceedings start to feel trumped up, like a horse trotting dutifully through its paces. (I can’t quite bring myself to say “plodding.”) The rote “spell gone wrong” plot wanders along, never truly sure of itself, where it’s going or why. And so, as slapstick tussles replace honest character interaction, slowly Brave becomes less magical and more tedious–an adjective that feels nearly profane when describing a Pixar creation.