A sweeping Highland-based animation: Pixar’s Brave (review)

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Slap on the woad, don a kilt and tuck into some haggis. No, it’s not a re-run of Braveheart. It is in fact Pixar’s latest animation Brave. Yes, the world’s foremost purveyors of CG animation have touched down on Caledonian soil for a stirring tale of love, lochs and legends.

Pixar’s typically ravishing visual sense transports us to 10th century Scotland, a mythical, mist-swept land of feuding clans and marauding black bears. Kelly McDonald voices rebellious Princess Merida, daughter of King Fergus of Clan DunBroch (Billy Connolly).

A 10th century tomboy who’s tired of being schooled in etiquette by her strict mother, Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson), Merida is also being groomed for potential suitors. Appalled at the plans for her future, Merida visits an old witch in order to change her fate, and brings down an age-old curse on her family. Now, she must race against time to break the spell and restore order before it’s too late.

At their very best, Pixar have honed a wonderfully idiosyncratic approach that transcends glib notions of ‘kids cinema’. Think back to the Toy Story trilogy. On the surface, children can enjoy the playful quality of the animation and the surface message that comes with it. Dig deeper however, and there is always a bedrock of pathos that strikes adults at a gut level – the end of Toy Story 3 for example, whilst not inaccessible to children, is best appreciated by their charges who are in a better position to understand that pivotal moment when they said goodbye to their toys.

At their best, Pixar’s combination of sophisticated, witty storytelling and lush visuals is unmatched by the competition, even if Dreamworks have come close at times (Shrek). Put bluntly, Brave isn’t up there with the likes of Toy Story, Monsters Inc and Finding Nemo, precisely because those idiosyncratic, unique touches have been ironed out by the archetypal fairy tale formula.

Brave’s story, centering on princesses, curses and legends, lacks the knock-out wonder of toys coming to life because it adheres to pre-existing structures; there’s a sense that Pixar can only imprint so much personality on this kind of story. Whether original director Brenda Chapman (who departed over that old perennial ‘creative differences’) had originally intended to make a more distinctive product will never be known.

So the original edges have been sanded off and the inevitable representation of the Scottish, while amiable and affectionate, feels surprisingly rote by the studio’s normal standards. But if this sounds unduly negative, rest assured Brave is leagues above the other CG competition; the likes of Ice Age 4 and The Lorax are consigned to the bottom of the loch in the face of the Pixar brand. Even if Brave lacks their distinctive personality, the affection for the characters and the refusal to be-labour a trite emotional message pulls it through.

There are two weapons in Brave’s arsenal. Not only is Merida the first Pixar hero to lend a volley of girl power; the movie benefits from a beautifully depicted mother-daughter relationship, a refreshing change of pace from the boys toys mentality to which we’ve become accustomed in many animated movies. Pixar’s sensitivity and skill at rendering the ups and downs in the relationship between Merida and Elinor carries Brave over many rough patches, including ill-defined secondary characters and borderline slapstick interludes that aren’t especially funny.

The development of this turbulent relationship is as believable and powerful as anything depicted in Pixar’s movies, proof positive that they aren’t a company solely reliant on kiddie-friendly visuals. Brave is visually extraordinary (and no doubt will do wonders for the Scottish tourist board) – but there is depth behind the lush depiction of highlands and mountains. Just don’t go expecting Loch Ness levels of depth.