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Thursday, June 28, 2012 05:35 am

Tepid story undercuts Brave’s dynamic visuals

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By first appearances, Pixar Studios has a winner on its hands with Brave, a pseudo-fairy tale that follows the template of the Disney animated princess classics. Like Sleeping Beauty, The Little Mermaid and others, this film features a strong, independent teenage girl who’s forced to set out on an adventure that results in her becoming an empowered young woman. And if there’s any studio producing better animation than Pixar, I’d like to see the work. Lush, lifelike and vibrant, the movie uses its 3-D format to great advantage as the forest setting where much of the story takes place threatens to envelope the viewer at every turn. Visually, it’s a knockout.

And yet, for some reason, Brave fails to engage. For all of its positive attributes, the story by Brenda Chapman, which took four screenwriters to adapt, flounders after its first half-hour. Its main character – the fiery princess, Merida (voice by Kelly Macdonald) – is a keeper, what with her sense of independence, boundless determination and crimson locks, which mirror her fierce demeanor. Her mother, Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson) is the only one in this Scottish medieval kingdom who adheres to convention, as her husband King Fergus (Billy Connolly), her triplet sons and seemingly each member of the realm’s other clans have nothing on their mind but fighting, eating and fighting a bit more. This all comes to a head when everyone in the kingdom gets together to vie for Merida’s hand. After a drink or two, it’s a wonder the castle is still standing.

While Elinor expects Merida to comply with the ceremony, it blows up in her face when her daughter bests each of her perspective suitors at archery and flees the grounds after a fight with her mother. Hurt and angry, the princess stumbles upon a witch (Julie Walters) who promises her a life of independence if she can simply get her mother to eat a tart that she’s made specifically for her. Not familiar with the phrase, “If it’s too good to be true, it probably is,” Merida follows these instructions to the letter, bringing a curse on her family that she must correct.

Once the curse is manifested, the film jumps the tracks as one sequence of awkward physical comedy follows another, while Merida’s efforts to solve this problem are delayed again and again. Little is done to develop the characters along the way and any sense of narrative urgency is replaced by a degree of stagnation that stops the film in its tracks. As a result, once the curse is lifted, it’s an anticlimactic moment that’s welcome simply because it finally brings the story to an end.

While I applaud directors Mark Andrews and Chapman’s efforts to give viewers a fresh approach to female empowerment, I think they’d have been better off going down a more traditional narrative route. Having a reluctant Merida being wooed by an equally strong suitor, a la The Taming of the Shrew, or presenting a Moby Dick-like adventure in which she gathers a group of hunters to track down a mythic bear that plagues their kingdom, might have resulted in a familiar story told freshly, rather than this tepid tale that goes nowhere fast.

Contact Chuck Koplinski at ckoplinski@usd116.org.

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