Words cannot describe how disgusted I was at Cars 2, but in the absence of a sufficiently hyperbolic descriptor, disgusted will have to do. To see my beloved Pixar - easily one of the most likeable multi-billion companies out there (top five, at least) - resort to such crass, cynical trash was hugely depressing. Even Cars 1 had that reliable Pixar charm, albeit in comparatively limited amounts. But Cars 2... as said, words don't really cut it. So I refused to let myself get overly hyped up for Brave, especially when some initial reviews veered worryingly towards the middling.
Luckily, Brave is the studio's best film since Toy Story 3. Not that the sole competition was ever going to pose much of a threat, but Brave is undoubtedly deserving of the Pixar logo. Best of the best it is not, but as far as big budget Hollywood animation goes this is warm-hearted, entertaining and quietly subversive production. Despite a few niggling shortcomings, Brave also has a handful of the spine-tingling moments that have made Pixar the great American animators of the last two decades.
Set in a fantastical reinterpretation of ye olde Scotland, Brave recounts the story of tomboyish princess Meridia (Kelly Macdonald doing a damn good impression of Kelly Macdonald). Much has been made of Pixar finally making a film with a female protagonist, and it's great to see a character as fully realised as Meridia. Intentionally or not, having such an unusual princess also allows directors Mark Andrews, Brenda Chapman (who, for mysterious reasons, was fired from the production at a late stage - a similar tale can be told about Ratatouille) and Steve Purcell to quietly subvert the old 'Disney Princess' clichés. We have a character that is wholly proactive, and in fact violently opposed to the whole 'prince charming' concept that acted as the sole motivation for many an animated princess in the past. With her messy, unflattering red hair (realised wonderfully through Pixar's animators and render-farms) and deep distrust of traditional dress, Meridia is one of the most endearingly original creations of recent mainstream cinema.
Appropriately for a film exploring themes of tradition, the rest of the piece is a mix of the familiar and the original. It can't be understated how refreshing it is to see a children's film devoid of a traditional villain - while there's a few antagonistic forces (including a dastardly bear who's more than he seems) this isn't a film concerned with simplistic good / evil divides. It's one of a few aspects of the film that resembles some of the traits of Studio Ghibli: the unusual folky soundtrack with female vocalist is very reminiscent of the recent Arrietty, while the will-o'-the-wisp design is straight out of Miyazaki's work.
The general narrative flow is mostly familiar, but it's engaging in spite of its predictability. It won't have audience members in tears like Toy Story 3 or Up, but it moves at an likeable pace throughout. If anything, it feels a little too brisk, lacking the epic scope the setting sometimes suggests. Initially, it seems as if this is going to be a one character show, with the amusing ensemble relegated to the background (some, like Billy Connelly, still don't have a hell of a lot to do). But through a genuinely unexpected twist - it involves the arrival of a second bear through a series of unfortunate events - around the midpoint the film becomes a sort of buddy feature. The new focus is completely out of left-field and it takes a little while to adjust to the eccentric new tone (there's something very odd about a bear animated with human mannerisms), but the payoffs are just about worth the overall absurdity of it all.
The film also occasionally suffers from an uncertain tonal identity. This plays out like a very broad comedy for huge amounts of the running time. This in itself isn't a bad thing: some of it is very funny, like a running joke about a indecipherable Scottish accent, or some of the gags related to the aforementioned bear-related twist. Yet after hints of Meridia's action chops in act one - including a wonderful horse-riding / archery sequence - it's lightly disappointing the vast majority of the setpieces are reliant on laughs over thrills. The often wacky tone also somewhat dilutes the emotional stakes of the story - while there's a typically dramatic climax, the stakes never feel as high as they were in, say, Toy Story 3. There's the very irregular feeling that some of the behind-the-scenes drama and director juggling may have negatively compromised certain aspects of the production.
These are concerns, but minor ones. Otherwise Brave is a hugely entertaining and likeable film. The visuals, characters and story are all extremely well-realised, and it's hard not to forgive some of the film's misjudgements when there's so much to appreciate elsewhere. As ever, it's rewarding just to soak up the technical and artistic wizardry on display. The Scottish setting is also beautifully realised. Generally speaking, the film ultimately achieves an effective balance between originality and familiarity: recognisable but occasionally invigorationing. Not quite the bravest or boldest film Pixar have ever made, but brave enough.
Post-script: the film, as dictated by Pixar tradition, is preceded by an absolutely wonderful short called La Luna, featuring a bitchin' score by the ever-reliable Michael Giacchino. Concerning a son, father and grandfather sent to 'sweep up' the moon every night, it's a triumph of imagination and art design. Make sure you don't show up late and miss it!