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The studio that has dominated CG animation for over fifteen years offers up their biggest challenge to Disney’s supremacy yet.

In their early feature making days Pixar laid down a firm rule for themselves. No movies about princesses. That was Disney’s territory and the Emeryville studio needed to differentiate themselves from their publishers’ own output. Classic after classic has forged them a towering reputation, one that arguably eclipses even that of Disney, certainly if you compare the two studios’ efforts since the millennium. But the Mouse House has been in resurgence of late and is making an earnest attempt to reclaim the animation crown and now Pixar is finally stepping into the fairytale territory they forbade themselves to enter. If you’ve read my Top Ten Most Anticipated Films of 2012 you’ll know I’ve been looking forward to this film more than any other this year. Can Brave match up to Tangled and once and for all confirm Pixar as the greatest animation studio the world has ever seen?

Merida (Kelly McDonald) is the flame-haired princess of a Scottish highland clan, daughter of King Fergus (Billy Connolly, who else?) and Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson) and seems destined, if her mother has her way, for a life of ladylike pursuits and a political marriage, a plan totally at odds with her headstrong thirst for adventure and love of archery. Their fractious relationship drives both mother and daughter to distraction, each refusing to listen to or acknowledge the viewpoint of the other and things come to a head when the heads of three allied clans arrive to oversee their firstborn sons competing for her hand in marriage.

Pixar has always made sure to stamp their own identity on every one of their films and for the most part Brave is no different. The film is stuffed with inventive and inspired sight gags, huge personalities and boasts a strong and mature emotional core. But there’s just no getting away from the fact that the story is strongly influenced by ghosts of Disneys past and three films in particular. A major plot development and elements of the story as a whole greatly resembles The Little Mermaid and the strained, complex mother/daughter relationship is extremely reminiscent of the film this one will most closely be compared to, Tangled. But, strangely, the story also borrows from Brother Bear which, quite frankly, is one of Disney’s worst animated features and by going down this path Brave makes its biggest misstep.

The opening third is outstanding, pacey, exciting, funny, full of spirit and moments of great character and strong emotion, Pixar right on their game but close to the half-way point a rather foreseeable twist derails the momentum for about ten of fifteen minutes and the experience drops from utterly delightful to merely entertaining, no disgrace by any means but we’re used to more from Pixar. Where earlier in the film we have no trouble getting emotionally involved with a superbly explored family dynamic we’re suddenly taken in a more difficult direction, one that struggles to truly maintain our sense of empathy and investment and after an amusing escape sequence we’re left wishing the plot could have gone somewhere a bit more interesting. It’s a stumble best summed up by a rather dull fishing scene supposed to depict an example of family bonding that is restrained by the situation.

I’m tiptoeing around the details but what I’m trying to say is that Brave isn’t quite as good as I wanted it to be. There’s less of a focus on adventure than I was hoping and the plot is neither as original or compelling as many of Pixar’s best. Perhaps that is the curse of enormous success, that a film of this quality can be seen as a relative disappointment. Pixar took a risk by stepping out of their comfort zone and instead of the roaring success we and they are used to we’re instead left with a film that is merely very good.

So let’s celebrate that because I still think Brave is one of the best films of the year so far and nothing illustrates that better than the incredible animation. Without any doubt this is the most amazing looking CG animation made to date, the detail in the landscapes, castles and forests is just unprecedented and everything is shaded and animated with a level of realism that we’ve never seen before and the shining example is in Merida’s fabulous curly red hair which must go down as one of the great achievements of animation. This is the new benchmark for this type of animation which goes further to convey a believable and beautiful rural world than any other equivalent has managed in the past. Moreover this an example of the kind of film for which stereoscopic 3D actually works well, giving depth to the magnificent landscapes and allowing the vibrant colours to really pop. The visuals and soundtrack combine to create a moody, otherworldly feel that approaches a level of hypnotic beauty only found in The Secret of Kells.

But this is far from style over substance. Merida is a difficult heroine to fault, free-spirited, stubborn, incredibly tough, all the best qualities and she is played with real skill by Kelly McDonald who conveys her quite complicated arc beautifully. The heartbeat of the narrative is in her relationship with her mother and this is something the film absolutely nails, perhaps even surpassing the similarly smart mother/daughter dynamic in Tangled. This is a fine example of a film without a clearly defined villain and neither mother nor daughter is presented as entirely right or wrong. On the one hand Merida wants to live for herself but seems uninterested in her responsibilities while Elinor’s desperation to maintain peace among the clans blinds her to her daughter’s feelings. These are intelligently drawn characters and one scene in which they take their anger out on each other’s possessions really hammers home the depth of their masterfully observed relationship.

Meanwhile the men command the lion’s share of the considerable and cartoonish comedy from the big-hearted Fergus’ endearing ramblings about his famous encounter with a beast to the colourful clansmen and their tendency towards fisticuffs. The tots will find most fun in the form of Merida’s triplet younger brothers who steal scenes and hearts with their silent bun-swiping adventures, Pixar again mining comedic gold from dumb characters. The set pieces all uniformly deliver and the crescendo provides us with one of the studio’s scariest sequences whilst still finding time for an emotionally involving finale.

Does this mean that Disney is now top dog again? I don’t think so. Pixar may have taken them on at their own game and lost but that will only encourage them to renew their efforts as Disney has recently renewed theirs. More importantly these close comparisons with Tangled raise an extremely pertinent point. When I first reviewed Tangled I gave it the same four stars I’m giving Brave but subsequent viewings convinced me that I underrated the film which I now consider to be one of Disney’s very best and one of the more enjoyable animated features of recent years. I never miss an opportunity to assert that a single experience of something is not always enough to forge a lasting opinion and suspect that Brave, which I will be going to see again, may grow in my esteem yet.

Verdict

It doesn’t quite reach the high watermark of Finding Nemo, Ratatouille, Wall•E, Up and the Toy Story trilogy but Brave is still a hugely enjoyable period yarn resplendent with complex characters, winning comedy and astonishing animation.

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