“Brave” uninspiring fare from exceptional studio

The reasons for my deep, buried attachment to the PIXAR brand-name run as deep and as far back as the roots of my infancy; hell, they practically started at the same time. For years, they seemed to have mastered the sweet-spot where technology and storytelling meet. Similarly admirable was their refusal to bend to the conventions and cliches of both animated and American filmmaking, at large.

If last year’s “Cars 2” served to slow this momentum, “Brave” puts a full-fledged halt to it. It’s a lazy, traditional outing more in the vein of its corporate parent than its own sensibilities. Perhaps most devastating is the sense that, for the first time, PIXAR has chosen a story simply not worth telling.

The reasons for this may dwell within “Brave”’s troubled history; a production considered unstable even for a studio who in the past has been prone to throwing out directors, even entire stories. “Brave” is one such example of an overhaul in the director’s seat, with Mark Andrews replacing Brenda Chapman a year or so ago.

The irony here is that “Brave” may be the simplest yarn PIXAR has spun yet. There’s the least going on in terms of theme, plot, or even character. What “Brave” is about, to refrain from spoiling its insipid twist at the dawn of the second act, is a Scottish princess, Merida, who hates bending to her mother’s conventions and begins to take action to rebel. But it’s not the sort of action that builds much tension or causes much impact; it’s fairly literally a cosmetic transformation.

Perhaps its because of the incessant shortcuts “Brave” seems so intent on taking. I’m not sure what’s the biggest affront here. Perhaps it’s the horrendous voiceover bluntly spouting exposition. Maybe the unlistenable and intrusive Disney-commissioned songs whose lyrics may as well be bullet-point lists of the character’s motivations and feelings. Who knows?

All this said: being set in an exotic locale and being designed by the best animators in the world, “Brave” has many, many cool visual moments. From shots showing the vast Scottish highlands or close-ups of Merida’s gorgeous, clementine-colored hair, just about all the visuals here have the pop that its story sorely lacks.

The quirky voice cast lends authenticity and convention to their roles as well, from Billy Connolly as Merida’s lovable oaf of a father, to Emma Thompson as the prying mother. Kelly Macdonald as the title character seems here to have made her big break, as suggested in past work like “Trainspotting” and “No Country for Old Men”. All the better for her, she sounds great here.

Don’t make it sound like I’m being harsh on “Brave” simply because its a step down for a company who, for eleven consecutive films, fired on all cylinders. That’s not why. It’s because “Brave” would represent lazy, underdeveloped storytelling not just for PIXAR, but any filmmaking enterprise; from an army of animators or just a director and a sound guy. I can’t recall the last time a movie inspired such apathy in me, and if there’s one thing I hate, it’s apathy. D

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