What has become of Pixar in recent years? Once known for their practically boundless imagination, their ability to turn unlikely lead characters (a robot, a rat, an old man) into true and lovable creations, the computer animation studio has apparently hit a brick wall. Releasing just one picture per year, they have seen fit to go the lazy sequel route, first with 2010's amiable but arguably lesser "Toy Story 3" and then with 2011's appalling "Cars 2," a desperate, charmless affair that spit on everything that made 2006's "Cars" so special. Next summer—wouldn't you know it—it's unnecessary sequel time (or should it be prequel in this case?) once more with "Monsters University," a college-set follow-up to 2002's "Monsters, Inc." that no one asked for. Judging from the teaser trailer, its promise is minimal. That brings us to our present year. With the possible exception of being Pixar's first movie with a female protagonist of human persuasion and, almost surprisingly, not a sequel, "Brave" is a sore disappointment. Like a cut-rate "Tangled" had there been no adventure for Rapunzel to go on, a villain forgotten about midway through, and lots of hijinks with a bear, the film trades in the scope of no less than the magical Scotland countryside for a dreary, forgettable chamber piece with mixed messages about female empowerment.
In the highlands of 10th-century Scotland sits the Kingdom of DunBroch, reigned over by King Fergus (voiced by Billy Connolly) and Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson). The long-held and time-honored tradition is that the first-born daughter is promptly married off when she comes of age as a means of preparing to one day take the throne. The ginger-haired Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald), however, wants none of it. An adventurous soul and master archer, she yearns for the freedom to do what she wants with her life. After coming to verbal blows with her mother, Merida finds herself in the cottage of a brew-stirring wise woman (Julie Walters) who sees to it that a curse falls upon Elinor. Suddenly, the woman has been transformed into a bear, unable to speak but still very much with the queen's mind and actions. With the curse threatening to become permanent with the second rising of the sun, it is up to an apologetic, guilt-stricken Merida to set things right.
The ultimate message conveyed by "Brave" is that people should be accepted for who they are (although never explicitly spelled out, one does have to wonder if Merida's conflicts might subtly stem from her emerging sexuality). Up until the heartfelt third act, though, Merida seems to be severely punished for her individuality—a confusing turn of events with murky moralistic leanings. These questionable plot turns notwithstanding, the film is very nearly stunning for most of the wrong reasons. For sure, the computer animation is some of the most intricate and sophisticated ever captured, Merida's red curls falling around her face with the movement and photorealism of live-action. Likewise, the untainted views of the Scottish landscape, if lacking in the specificity of time and location beyond what is established through exposition, are mystically dream-like. It's like a whole different world unto itself, and deserves to be seen in the full glory and brightness level of 2D (the ineffective, awfully dim 3D version showing in some theaters does a disservice to the visual artistry of Pixar's animators and ought to be avoided).
Where "Brave" finally lets down the viewer is in its almost defiant back-turn away from being the inventive, large-scale fairy tale it deserves to be. Just when Merida's voyage should have her spreading her wings, she must instead recoil back to the castle with her mother (in bear form) and keep her dad (who lost a leg in a bear attack when Merida was little) and three little brothers Harris, Hubert and Hamish from laying eyes on the beast as she figures out a way to reverse the curse. Cue the ill-placed, rarely-funny slapstick as Elinor bumbles about in her new, bigger, hairier body as Merida tries to keep her quiet. As for expectations that more backstory will be divulged about the witchy wise woman just as she re-enters the goings-on, think again; she's never seen or heard from again. It's a criminal wasting of what might have been an unforgettable villain in the pantheon of Disney bad guys.
"Brave" is sincere, even touching at the end as Merida and Elinor come to terms with their mother-daughter relationship and both see the errors of their ways. Suspense is built up, too, as Merida begins to run out of time in saving her mom from a terrible fate. Seen as a whole, alas, the picture is anticlimactic, a diminishing outcome that squanders its rainbow of possibilities on a tale that is low-key, frequently dull, and claustrophobic. Voice talent is of high quality, with Kelly Macdonald (2007's "No Country for Old Men") a vivid and spunky heroine as Merida, but the rote script, as written and directed by Mark Andrews (co-writer of 2012's "John Carter"), Brenda Chapman (1998's "The Prince of Egypt"), and Steve Purcell, lets down the movie's superior elements. Based upon evidence as of late, Pixar should spend more time perfecting their stories and less time trying to beat the clock on release dates. The studio is in a definite downslide, and "Brave" is simply the latest proof that they don't have the magic touch they used to.