The reputation that Pixar have built for themselves is something worthy of respect. The quality and consistency of work alone is impressive, producing thirteen feature films in eighteen years, with a now settled rhythm of one film a year that allows their work to be that much more considered and of a higher quality. To make the inevitable comparisons to Dreamworks Animation, the other major animation player in Hollywood, who over fifteen years have put out twenty four features but now average three a year, the effects of this greater output can be seen in the differing quality of what they release. Pixar have also been known to exude a braveness in their approach, which for a company making only one film a year is very gratifying. We’ve seen an animated film with a dialogue free first third / a cranky octogenarian as the lead / a rat becoming a chef in Parisian gastronomic heaven. These films are justly revered and make a lot of money, but who really is the audience for them?
As has oft been covered these films are aimed at adults too, which is part of the genius. Animation may appeal to kids as its core audience, but Pixar respects that a) adults need to accompany the young ones, and b) get it right and adults might actually want to go watch without them. Most other animated films try to pull this off with a few jokes that go over kids heads, usually about some older pop culture reference, but Pixar are cleverer than that. What appeals to adults is surely what exists at the core of each film - they have soul and something important to instill in the viewer. Watching Up for example; it's magnificently stirring from the start and the first half is so expertly pitched that I have to remind myself that this is a film aimed at kids when approaching the over-the-top and generally less satisfactory second half. It can be so easy to forget that sometimes and that's the point.
And so to Brave, this year's release. Following on from Cars 2 Pixar had something to prove for the very first time - after all it was the sequel that kids probably wanted most and adults wanted the least. It was their first feature to be critically drubbed and the first not to be nominated for a single Academy Award, but it wasn’t a bad film, it just played more to their core audience and ended up feeling mediocre compared to past glories. Brave doesn’t do enough to be redolent of these past glories either, but it is still good. What’s most surprising is that it takes on the old Disney princess trope, the first time Pixar have done this, however it’s typically not quite as straightforward as that sounds.
Set amongst the Scottish clans of old, fiery Merida (Kelly McDonald) is the daughter of clan leader Fergus (Billy Connelly) and Elinor (Emma Thompson), and is more interested in archery and adventure than being the princess her mother is grooming and expecting her to be. In order to break from this she makes an ill-advised wish that comes true and causes much chaos, ensuring she must rectify things before it’s too late. With this resolutely not being a film about finding her prince and with it set in the highlands of Scotland away from a common magical fairytale world, this is certainly a princess story with a twist.
As ever the animation is high quality and the voice cast do a solid job with Scottish accents abounding all round. The Scottish setting gives the film some personality but it doesn’t feel like a gimmick, it just grounds everything in a distinct world. The story itself is pretty perfunctory but the core message about a girl finding and re-engaging with something key that was missing in her life is a decent and important one. There’s plenty of drama and a few slightly darker scenes, but there’s also a nice line of comic relief from Merida’s young brothers and her father. A key plot point in the second half falls into the Up trap of being a bit overly childish and threatens to derail the good work from the first half, but fortunately it just about manages to stay on track.
Brave is a sweet film and it’s difficult by the end not to be won over by it all and the core message. But it still feels pretty generic and in all honesty isn't as good as a number of the other Pixar films. It still exudes their high standard but the irony is it’s not actually a very brave film; not like the aforementioned Wall-E, Up or Ratatouille. Brave is the most Dreamworks like film that Pixar have made, the result of a second half which felt like it could’ve existed in one of their films, a story that feels more by-the-numbers than usual and fairly conventional aesthetics. Except it has the usual Pixar soul which puts it into that rarefied league, which in itself is reason enough to watch.