Everybody loves Pixar. It's hard to think of another company in the entire history of movies that has been as widely and consistently admired. The characters and stories developed in-house for mega-hits like Toy Story and its sequels are regarded as emblems of thoughtful, even progressive filmmaking. Though it has only turned out 13 feature films in 17 years, Pixar's technological innovations made possible an entire industry for the creation of digitally animated movies. Every kid who dreams of becoming an animator — and there are many of them these days — also dreams of working at Pixar.
Given that context, it always comes as a shock whenever Pixar's earnest efforts result in a film as mediocre as Brave. It not only lacks the spark of originality that makes the company's best movies so memorable but stumbles in the all-important character-story department. Last year's Cars 2 was widely considered the weakest film the company had ever made. It became the first Pixar movie to receive no Oscar nominations of any kind. Is the bloom finally off the rose at Pixar?
The culture at the company dictates that each successive movie incorporates new technology, especially regarding the creation of the visuals. Brave is no exception. Pixar's chief creative officer and Brave producer John Lasseter has accurately described the film as breaking barriers in the "believability of organic, natural environments." Brave's renderings of the Scottish Highlands are not only beautiful but realistic in a way that's unprecedented for digital animation. There's one close-up shot of a fish swimming in a river that looks pretty much indistinguishable from live-action cinematography. Once animation fully crosses that line, who's going to want human actors with their pesky agents and fat contracts?
As Pixar well knows, groundbreaking visuals don't mean much without good content to animate. Brave's original story involves a teenage princess in an ancient Scottish land who fights with her mother, the queen, because the princess doesn't want to accept an arranged marriage. This allows for a lot of pseudo-profound claptrap about the nature of individual destiny. But we've heard it all before. As the first Pixar movie to feature a female protagonist, Brave also represents a missed opportunity to give the young girls in the audience some life lessons they can call their own.
Children will have no problem with Brave, and of course that counts for a lot. The movie's only real disappointment is that it doesn't offer much to the grown-ups. The occasional bit of playful adult-targeted wordplay only reminds us of what's generally missing here, as suggested by Pixar's own high standards. The real takeaway lesson is not the one found in each of the company's films ("appreciate your family") but that making good movies is a lot harder than it looks. Even for Pixar. — KEN KORMAN