The true reason for Pixar’s dominance in the animation field has never been its computer animation but rather that studio’s uncanny story sense. The “Toy Story” trilogy, “Up,” “WALL-E” and “The Incredibles,” to name but a few, are all so strikingly original. So it’s a bit of a shock to take in “Brave,” a perfectly fine effort but one that lacks the Pixar touch of distinction.
No, it won’t break the studio’s winning streak of box-office hits. But by delving into the world of princesses, witches and magic spells, “Brave” edges perilously close to the old Disney formula of Europeanized fairy tales.
By setting the tale in an early — and rude — Scotland, perhaps in the Dark Ages, the Pixar team does give the fairy tale an edge and grit. But this doesn’t prevent the cartoon seeming a backward step. True, its visual lushness can’t be topped and the voice cast’s gusto and brogues are real pluses. Both children and adults roared with laughter at the all-media screening at the El Capitan in Hollywood and I was surprised that the rather intense violence on occasions seemingly caused no tears or crying from younger audience members.
But then there’s that story …
Credited to Mark Andrews, Steve Purcell, Brenda Chapman and Irene Mecchi from a story by Chapman, who co-directed with Andrews, the screenplay takes you back to the Scotland of yore, where Princess Merida (vigorously voiced by Kelly Macdonald), a redheaded tomboy with a stubborn streak a mile long, lives a life of noisy contentment. She loves archery and riding fast and furiously through the verdant forest. Then she learns her parents, King Fergus (Billy Connolly) and Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson), mean her to marry one of three suitors from their aligned clans, none of whom inspire confidence to say nothing of affection.
This is as tradition demands but it pitches the lass into a frenzy. She rides off on her trusty steed into her beloved dark forest and there pixy-like glowing lights lead her to a witch’s lair where she buys a spell from the old hag (Julie Walters) to cast on her mom. This takes the form of a cake that when a bite is consumed turns her mother into an enormous bear.
Cue both slapstick and genuine jeopardy as her blustery father, alarmed at finding a bear in his castle, goes on a rampage that might end with his killing his own wife unwittingly. Since Merida’s three redheaded little brothers eat the cake too and turn into cute cubs, there are sufficient laughs and scares. But this all seems a far cry from the imaginative Pixar films of old.
The best bits revolve around the Queen-as-bear — she can’t talk but she can pantomime to her frantic daughter — yet the noisy and quarrelsome clans and the occasionally uncouth dad are one-note gags. Worse, the film’s heroine never develops enough depth of character if you’re going to compare her with the old Disney fairytale heroines, and “Brave” more or less demands that comparison.
Pixar’s digital animation keeps getting better and better, however. The character animation is spot-on as the animators bring a rather large cast of characters to vivid life. The heroine is a round-headed, curly haired creature with plenty of moxie. Her dad is an overgrown rascal and her mom a regal beauty. The lookalike brothers are three pranksters while the three suitors are a motley crew of rejects from “The Bachelor.” The animators certainly squeeze just about as many laughs out of these drawings as they can. Patrick Doyle contributes a rousingly effective musical score.
Opens: June 22 (Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures)
Production: Pixar Animation Studios
Voices: Kelly Macdonald, Billy Connolly, Emma Thompson, Julie Walters, Robbie Coltrane, Kevin McKidd, Craig Ferguson, Sally Kinghom, Eilidh Fraser, Peigi Barker, Steven Cree, Steve Purcell, Callum O’Neill, Patrick Doyle, John Ratzenberger
Directors: Mark Andrews, Brenda Chapman
Co-director: Steve Purcell
Screenwriters: Mark Andrews, Steve Purcell, Brenda Chapman, Irene Mecchi
Story by: Brenda Chapman
Producer: Katherine Sarafian
Executive producers: John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton, Pete Docter
Directors of photography: Robert Anderson (camera), Danielle Feinberg (lighting)
Production designer: Steve Pilcher
Music: Patrick Doyle
Editor: Nicholas C. Smith
PG rating, 93 minutes