Before the Mt. Erebus disaster of 1979, Air New Zealand was one of the few major airlines that could boast a perfect passenger safety record. What Mt. Ereubus was to Air New Zealand, Brave is to Pixar. Until now, I’ve enjoyed every movie that Pixar has ever made. Even Cars 2, commonly regarded as Pixar’s worst (mostly by critics who can’t stand Larry the Cable Guy, whose character, Mater, was promoted from bit player to main character in the second instalment), seemed to me an above average spy spoof. But now that they’ve added Brave to their resume, Pixar’s perfect track record is a thing of the past. Brave isn’t just a disappointment, it’s an all-out mediocrity. Yes, the animation is as impressive as ever, but the other trademarks that distinguished Pixar’s past triumphs—the vivid, three dimensional characters, the humour that miraculously appeals to both children and adults, the sadder-than-The-Deer-Hunter moments of genuine pathos—are all notably missing.
The decline in quality is evident right away. In an early scene, the feisty red-haired princess Merida (Kelly McDonald) rides a horse through the Scottish Highlands, scales the side of a mountain, and reaches out and touches a waterfall. The sequence bears a superficial similarity to the scene in Wall-E where Wall-E, clinging to the side of a spaceship, reaches out and touches the rings of Saturn. But in terms of execution, the two scenes couldn’t be more different. Aided by Thomas Newman’s superb score, the scene from Wall-E is one of the great moments in contemporary cinema — the closest we’ll ever get to knowing what 2001: a Space Odyssey would’ve been like had it been directed by Charlie Chaplin. In contrast, the scene in Brave is set to a cheesy pop ballad (scored by the usually reliable Patrick Doyle) and comes across as a not-very-effective ad for VisitScotland.com.
It’s at this point that Brave stops resembling past Pixar movies and starts resembling the kinds of movies that Disney put out in the early 1990s. When Merida returns from her excursion, she has a heated argument with her mother, who stubbornly insists that she get married to one of three possible suitors (none of whom could be described as a “catch”). Merida runs off into the woods again, but rather than climb a mountain and touch a waterfall, she visits a shop that’s owned and operated by a witch. The witch grants Merida a wish, but the wish isn’t executed in the way that Merida had hoped, and before you know it, her mother has been transformed into a bear. The rest of the movie concerns Merida’s attempt at reversing the spell, which involves sneaking her mother into the castle. Since everyone in the castle is pathologically afraid of bears, this proves to be even more difficult than it sounds.
The problem with fairy tales is that once you’ve heard one, you’ve heard them all. With The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, Disney discovered that if you add inanimate objects to fairy tales and then give them a few catchy songs to sing, fairy tales suddenly become a lot more interesting. In Brave, alas, there are no singing inanimate objects to liven things up. What we get instead is a bland, conventional fairy tale that’s told in a bland, conventional way. For audiences who are completely unfamiliar with fairy tales, Brave will no doubt be a transfixing experience. For everyone else, a world of tedium awaits.