The past couple of years haven't been the best of times to be a Pixar fanboy. Or at least, compared to the few years before then, when they had Ratatouille, Wall-E, Up and Toy Story 3 coming out one after the other. And even before then - before Cars, widely regarded as their first misstep - they had a string of massive successes stretching from The Incredibles all the way to the first Toy Story. It all started when they announced that their next film after Toy Story 3 would be Cars 2, a sequel to their least-liked movie and a not-inconsiderable critical disappointment - and although I still liked it, it was still a clear step down from their usual standard. So as any fanboy would, I placed high hopes on Brave, their 13th animated feature, to mark a return to their form.
And it pains me - despite the movie being pretty good, and one that I enjoyed quite a bit - to say that it isn't.
Merida (Kelly Macdonald), princess of the clan DunBroch, is a spunky and free-spirited teenage girl who loves shooting her bow and arrow, riding through the Scottish highlands, and generally seeking adventure. But although her father King Fergus (Billy Connolly) indulges her and her three younger triplet brothers, her mother Elinor (Emma Thompson) is a lot more strict. Elinor is trying to bring Merida up to be a proper princess, and has arranged to marry her off to a son of one of three allied clans. Rebelling against her mother's plans for her future, Merida comes across a witch (Julie Walters) and asks her for a spell that will change her mother, and thus change Merida's fate. She only realises what a grave mistake she has made when the spell changes Elinor into a huge black bear - one that her father mistakes for Mor'du, the bear that he once fought years ago and intends to seek revenge upon.
This isn't the first time a Pixar film's originator was taken off his or her own project and replaced with another director. It happened to Jan Pinkava and Ratatouille, amid disturbing rumours of a falling out - but the final product, under the new helm of Brad Bird, turned out just fine. It happened again with Brenda Chapman, to whom Brave was a highly personal story and Pixar's first to feature a female protagonist. This time, the results aren't as good, and it does not achieve the thematic and emotional depths of a truly female-centric film. (Yes, yes, I know, I am a man saying this. Wait. I can prove my point.) And though we may never know what went on behind the scenes, Pixar cannot escape the charge that firing Chapman is the cause of it all. They're not sexist; they couldn't be, if they could create female characters like Jessie the cowgirl, EVE, Helen Parr, even Dory. But Brave proves they can be as blinkered about the female perspective as, well, any all-male group can be.
See, it claims to be a story that's uniquely about mothers and daughters - specifically, the way the former hovers over the latter and the latter chafes under this treatment. I gotta ask: exactly how is this different from Hiccup and Stoick in How to Train Your Dragon? Or Flint and his dad in Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs? Or any one of dozens of films featuring protagonists with daddy issues? You have your parental figure with expectations of a child that differs from the child's own ambitions, with all that juicy dramatic mix of love, disappointment, resentment and guilt that comes with it. That's exactly what happens with Merida and Elinor, and their story goes through exactly the same paces all those other movies do. (And makes poor use of Fergus, who is reduced to a bystander in the climax and should really have been given more to do considering that's his wife that's been turned into a bear.) In fact, Rapunzel and Mother Gothel in Rapunzel: A Tangled Tale were more interesting, and that film has a greater claim to being a uniquely female story.
That seen-it-before feeling pervades more than just the central mother-daughter relationship. There are echoes of How to Train Your Dragon (the Scottish accents), Hayao Miyazaki's Princess Mononoke (the will-o'-the-wisps) - and most strangely, Disney's own Brother Bear (a human being gets turned into a bear), Rapunzel (the heroine's horse that's almost, but not quite, a cute animal sidekick), and Beauty and the Beast during its climax. I'm not faulting it for not being 100% original - which is an impossible standard anyway, and besides, taking inspiration from such a disparate variety of sources could just as well produce something original. But the other films Brave is reminiscent of are all in the animated genre, which gives the impression not so much that it took inspiration from them, but that it simply didn't know - or care - that it's all been done before.
But as I said, I still enjoyed it quite a bit, as I knew I was going to. The gags are all terrific, in particular one hilarious one involving the witch's automated message system. Beautifully-rendered visuals are practically obligatory for Pixar films, but Merida's unruly shock of bright red hair is a particularly remarkable bit of animation and character design. As derivative as its final moments are, they are still well-crafted enough to stir the necessary emotion, and put a little sting into TMBF's eyes. I also liked how subtly the plot weaved together the witch's spell on Elinor, the demon bear Mor'du, and the legend of a rogue prince that Elinor tells Merida about in the beginning without spelling out the connections. And finally, the soundtrack is gorgeous and stirring; you simply can't go wrong with Gaelic hymns and traditional Scottish sounds. This is a movie worth sitting through the entire end credits - both for the music, and the funny post-credits scene.
Still, this is a disappointment. I hadn't expected much from Cars 2, and I was willing to allow Pixar their one revisit to their biggest cash cow - but this one I was hoping to be the one that got them back into their groove. It isn't. It had all the potential to be, but the magic simply wasn't happening. Which is a bitter pill to swallow for a Pixar fanboy like myself, so I'm thinking maybe it's time I cooled my enthusiasm. Maybe their winning streak has finally come to an end; maybe it's finally become too much to expect greatness from every single Pixar film. Their next, Monsters University - a prequel to Monsters, Inc. - certainly doesn't look like it'll be anything more than an entertaining trifle - which, ultimately, also describes Brave. So I think I'll do just that: expect every new Pixar movie to be merely good, instead of yet another of the finest animated films ever made. That's not something to be ashamed of... is it?
NEXT REVIEW: The Amazing Spider-Man
Expectations: so, what's new?