When is a middling success a disappointment? When the bar for achievement is set extremely high. After the wizardry and genius of the "Toy Story" trilogy, "The Incredibles," "Wall-E" and "Up," a good movie from Pixar hardly seems good enough. "Brave," the studio's Scottish princess fairy tale, pales in comparison with the childlike wonder and emotional depth of its predecessors. With DreamWorks' delirious "Madagascar 3" still in circulation, I find myself in an unfamiliar position. For the first time ever I would encourage families to see a rival studio's animation before a competing Pixar entry.
The film's graphic take on 10th-century Scotland emphasizes lovely color over exciting compositions. The exterior scenes capture the country's craggy green-gray splendor and dodgy, overcast skies with a look that is more beautifully tactile landscape painting than epic panorama.
Headstrong Princess Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald), with her paprika-colored corkscrew curls, visually pops against the cool, mossy backgrounds. With her wicked archery skills and an independent streak longer than the River Clyde, she's on better footing with free-spirited King Fergus (Billy Connolly) than prim Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson). The Queen, already saddled with scalawag triplets, expects Merida to grow up and accept her royal responsibilities. That includes wearing confining formal dresses and marrying whichever suitor triumphs at the clan Olympics. True to the tradition of independent-minded heroines, Merida has other plans, driving the film into an unexpected detour.
"Brave" is Pixar's first feature with a female heroine, the first in a period setting, and the first that can't decide if it's one of their rollicking action movies or one of their heart-tugging character-based comedies. The production reportedly was troubled, with the director and story originator Brenda Chapman replaced midway by first-time directors Mark Andrews and Steve Purcell. This may account for the designed-by-committee feel of the enterprise, with kinetic energy jousting uneasily against sentimental family themes and talking-animal high jinks.
A key character undergoes a magical transformation, giving the royal family's frictions a ferocious dramatic twist. The story moves into an area where Merida's impetuous nature becomes her biggest failing, and repairing the family bonds she struggled against is her greatest challenge.
The most impressive aspect of the production is the animation of realistic and believable facial expression. Bears feature prominently in the story, and their emotional fluency is impressive: Sections of the movie could play silently, and you would still recognize their anger, fear, surprise, happiness and embarrassment. Still, "Brave" is a subpar Pixar offering. The standout characters, exciting set pieces and memorable songs that we've come to expect are absent. The truest advertising tagline would be, "From the studio that brought you 'Cars 2.'"