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Saturday, June 23, 2012

BRAVE (2012)

This thirteenth computer-animated feature from Pixar (yeah, Disney distributed it but who cares?) is set in 10th century Scotland and takes its viewers into a richly-realized world of tartanned clans, witches, enchanted forests, magic, and enough comedy and visual charm to dazzle even the most jaded of viewers. Which is good because BRAVE, while very entertaining, is definitely a mid-level work for this studio.

Tomboyish princess Merida of the kingdom of DuBroch (very effectively voiced by Scottish actress Kelly Macdonald) is feisty, independent and an archer with skills that would make Legolas nod with approval, but unfortunately for Merida he's not in this film and instead she faces the disapproval of her mother, Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson), who relentlessly grooms Merida to be the very acme of all things princessly. Her mother loves her daughter but has zero consideration for her Merida's complete and utter disinterest in all that princess crap and makes nearly every waking hour of her daughter's time a living hell of comportment and courtly protocol. Neither understands the other, and thus are the seeds of mother/daughter frustration sown.

Then comes the day when Merida's father, the enormous, tough and sweet-natured King Fergus (Billy Connolly, who's perfect for this role), drops a bombshell: the princess must be betrothed to one of the sons of the three clan leaders with whom her father is allied, or the allegiances forged when Fergus and his former enemies banded together to drive back the Romans and Viking raiders will dissolve and the kingdom will find itself in a state of inter-tribal warfare. Hey, tradition's a bitch, and Merida wants none of it. Nonetheless she finds herself all prettied-up and presentably perfect when the suitors arrive and she is given the choice of what contest of strength or skill at arms the princes will compete at for her hand. Noting that her suitors must be firstborn to compete and that she herself is a firstborn, Merida chooses archery as the test and, much to her mother's horror and mortification, enters to shoot for her own hand once the princes have loosed their own arrows. With the ease of a possible ancestor of Oliver Queen, Merida decimates her suitors, launching perfect bullseyes with each shot, even splitting the only previously fired arrow to (accidentally) make a perfect score. Furious, the queen has a bitter row with her daughter that leads Merida to slash a tapestry depicting her family that her mother had crafted by hand, in angered response to which the queen throws her daughter's beloved bow into the fire, causing Merida to flee the castle in tears, borne by her trusty steed. (In a telling moment, once Merida has fled the room her mother immediately realizes she has attempted to destroy something her daughter treasures, so she hauls the scorched bow from the fireplace's flames and pats it out as her face clearly conveys her regret. It's beautiful piece of character animation.)

As her horse plunges headlong into the nearby forest, Merida encounters a trail of glowing Will O' the Wisps, sprites that purportedly lead one to their fate, and she follows them to the home of friendly wood-carving witch (Julie Walters) who specializes bear-themed tchotchkes. The desperate princess purchases a spell from the witch (along with her complete inventory) that is guaranteed to change her fate but, like damned near all stories where a magical bargain is struck, things do not go as Merida planned, and the rest of the narrative deals with the trials and tribulations that she and her mother must deal with once the spell works its unforeseen alterations to the proper order of things. (No, it doesn't create an alternate timeline or anything like that, and I ain't sayin' what happens.) Anyway, an ancient curse, the king's obsession with revenge for a long-ago encounter that cost him his left leg, ursine shenanigans, mother/daughter dysfunction and examinations of tradition, the pitfalls of pride-fueled impulsiveness and the need to respect one's kids' need to be who they are and not necessarily what their parents want to make them into all collide head-on before everything is resolved.

The kingdom of DuBroch's royal family: a gaggle of fun-loving gingers...and one well-meaning brunette killjoy.

BRAVE has all the elements one could possibly want from a fun, funny and unexpectedly somewhat-deep fairytale, but it's missing that certain intangible something that makes for the perfect Pixar cinematic experience, and for the life of me I cannot quite figure out what it is. The film is funny, visually sumptuous, features terrific voice acting and an evocative score, has no actual villain — well, yes and no, but I really can't discuss it without spoilers — yet it does not lack for conflict, and Merida's younger identical triplet brothers —Harris, Hubert and Hamish — steal any scene they're in, but despite all that BRAVE, out of Pixar's thirteen feature-length efforts, comes in for me somewhere in the mid-range. It's enjoyable, you won't be bored by it and it's definitely kid-friendly with a skew toward adventurous young girls, so definitely see it in the theater on as large a screen as you can find, and don't shell out the extra scratch for 3-D; I saw it in 2-D and it was just fine, so spend those extra bucks on some Goobers instead. Just don't go expecting the another THE INCREDIBLES or UP. Pixar's a creative juggernaut but nobody knocks it out of the park every single time. I mean, look at CARS, for god's sake! (BRAVE is waaaaaay better than either of the CARS movies, so don't even go there.)

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