Let's take a brief moment to get this out of the way: it's better than Cars 2.
Brave tells the story of Princess Merida (voiced by Kelly MacDonald), a young girl in medeival Scotland who would rather shoot arrows and run amok than do princess-y things. Her father (Billy Connoly) is a lovable oaf who's happy to indulge her, while her mother (Emma Thompson) would rather have her daughter be more lady-like. When it comes time for Merida to be betrothed in order to maintain peace in the kingdom, she refuses, and discovers a witch (Julie Walters) who offers her a spell that can change her fate. That spell is more of a curse, Merida discovers, and she has to find a way to make things right.
Right off the bat there's a number of problems. The film's creators seem to be unable to find away around the "princess problem;" that is, presenting a female lead character in a role other than a princess. It couldn't have been so difficult for them to present Merida as an average girl with similar problems, could it? The film presents a surprisingly sophisticated story, but ends up moving along with life lessons learned and platitudes telegraphed from the beginning. The film also feels as if it was sewn together from the parts of two other films, likely the result of two (or rather, three) different directors bringing different visions to the table. The result is a film that doesn't live up to the high bar that Pixar has set for itself, but instead feels like a missed opportunity for something great.
This isn't to say there's nothing worthwhile about it. Brave's biggest strength is its complex presentation of mother-daughter relationships, and how though mothers have more experience, they don't always know what's best for their daughters. This is a, well, brave move for the company, considering Disney has a long history of killing lead characters' mothers. It also has all the trademark beauty we expect from Pixar, with gorgeous sweeping shots of the Scottish landscape and a particularly impressive fiery mane of hair on Merida. Even background characters have distinct personalities, making crowd scenes rich and enjoyable. Despite the rather obvious ending, I'll be damned if I still didn't tear up. And of course Merida herself is a great character, and MacDonald lends her a sense of mischief that should have been explored more.
When people list the best movies Pixar has made, Brave likely won't be among them. But it is better than most of the current crop of animated movies so far this year, and worth checking out. I'd just like to see the film that Chapman originally had in mind. B+