The problem with being Pixar is that, in the wake of releases like “The Incredibles” and “Up,” a merely good movie seems a bit of a letdown.
There’s really nothing wrong with “Brave,” the animation factory’s latest feature effort. In many (if not most) of its details, it is exemplary.
It doesn’t, however, offer the big emotional wallop of Pixar’s finest work; for those of us who found, say, the photo album sequence of “Up” to be one of the most moving film experiences in recent years, it makes for pleasant but hardly overwhelming movie watching.
Disney animated films over the last 20 years have made a point of featuring spunky heroines, but this is Pixar’s first effort to do so. (Pixar is an artistically independent subsidiary of the Mouse House.)
Our leading lady is Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald), a princess in what appears to be pre-Christian Scotland.
The teenaged Merida drives her mother, Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson), to distraction with her tomboyish behavior. “A princess does not chortle. Or stuff her gob.”
Merida’s wild mane of red hair is like an explosion of orange confetti, and the animators have given every curly strand a life of its own. She likes nothing more than riding full tilt on her horse, Angus, while sending arrows zapping into targets along her route.
Merida’s father, King Fergus (Billy Connolly) — at heart, a mead-swilling good old lad — secretly admires his daughter’s derring-do. But now that she’s come of age, Merida is prime marriage material.
In fact, finding her a husband from among the kingdom’s three other clans is a priority. For years, the prospect of a royal marriage is all that has kept the peace.
Merida wants none of it, particularly when she realizes that she can outshoot, outthink and run circles around any of the proffered suitors.
Desperate for a way out, she buys a curse from a doddering old witch in the forest, only to find that it doesn’t work precisely the way she had planned.
I won’t give away the film’s big twist, except to say that I was a bit underwhelmed. At a point in the narrative when “Brave” should be building a bit of heart, it opts for gimmicky silliness … which is not to say that there isn’t much to enjoy here.
The animation is spectacularly beautiful, with the computer-rendered “sets” and “locales” creating a magical illusion of reality; at times it seems almost photorealistic, but there are just enough painterly touches to remind you that it’s animation.
The characters are, for the most part, rich and hugely enjoyable.
I was particularly taken with Fergus, a giant fireplug of a fellow with one peg leg — the result of an encounter with a legendarily huge bear. Now the king nurses an Ahab-ish obsession with settling his score with the beast.
Merida’s three suitors and their various clansmen are a hoot, with each family exhibiting a peculiar body type and costuming.
Merida also has three bratty younger brothers who are always getting into mischief. “Boys, don’t play with your haggis.”
The writers (all five of them) and directors (Mark Andrews, Brenda Chapman and Steve Purcell) employ some sophisticated narrative techniques, like cutting back and forth between two conversations in different parts of the castle.
There are some equally delightful effects, like the magical will-o’-the-wisps — pulsating balls of blue flame that haunt the woods.
Finally, one must commend the makers of “Brave” for not going the usual fairy tale route and having Merida find true love in the end. In fact, you can’t help wondering if Merida isn’t Disney/Pixar’s first gay character …
Not that there’s anything wrong with that.