The plot twist at the center of Brave has been extremely well-guarded, to the point where it was an almost complete surprise to me and, as Pixar intended, a little bit magical. I couldn’t help patting my chest once or twice to settle my heartstrings, so the animation studio hasn’t altogether lost its touch. But the biggest surprise in Brave turns out to be how lifeless it feels as a whole: it’s the first Pixar movie that I’ve seen that has left me feeling about the same afterward as when I went into it.
Of course Brave isn’t for me, it’s aimed at kids. Kids talk a lot during movies — unlike their parents, they don’t yet know any better — so if you listen (and you don’t have to listen that hard) you can easily get a feeling for how the movie’s intended audience is reacting. The audience around me — specifically, the four or five distinct voices I could pick out reacting to Brave’s medieval adventure story and its (largely) nudity-themed jokes — seemed rather lost. The sense I got was that the kids were watching a movie unfold in front of them, instead of envelop them, the way the best Pixar movies have. One little girl never stopped asking her mom what was happening onscreen, and I don’t think this indicates Pixar’s famous conviction to not dumb down their plots for kids (Brave’s heroine, a rebellious Scottish princess and expert archer named Merida, is always making loud expository statements, ostensibly to keep people in the loop). I think it indicates Pixar’s growing disconnect from their commitment to innovation — to daring stories and long wordless sequences whose executions could rival Buster Keaton’s and mesmerize little kids to the point that following the plot stopped mattering. These things used to connect Pixar with the world of real human filmmaking, distancing them from their pop-culture-recycling competitors.
But if Pixar has lost its willingness to push its movies the extra mile, as last summer’s Cars 2 and, unfortunately, Brave seem to indicate, that shouldn’t entirely cloud over the fact that they’re still at the forefront of feature-length CGI movie making. Brave has impressive attributes. Its visuals never feel as revelatory as, say, the rocket-pack dance sequence in Wall-E, but the way the animators have been able to render Merida’s explosively unkempt fire-red hair or the way they turn a standard witch’s cauldron animation into a clever riff on a carnival game, with magic potions acting as buttons would at an arcade, proves that even at half-steam Pixar is safely in the lead of the race with Dreamworks and Fox (though that doesn’t make it any less sad that a race to make money is what the whole children’s movies game is about).
The problem isn’t that Brave has acquiesced to the pandering glibness of the lesser studios, but that as a whole it’s simply narratively staid. At its center is Pixar’s standard, conservative message about striking the right balance to find your place in the world, but the movie mainly focuses on cranking out chase sequences and pretty imagery. There’s very little in it that makes you think the primary writer and director Mark Andrews — who replaced the original director when the movie wasn’t shaping up — was working towards the end of a story that just had to be told.