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Review: ‘Brave’ nearly another bullseye for Pixar

Courtesy of Disney/Pixar

When Pixar Animation Studios released its first honest-to-goodness dud in 2011, it was Armageddon as we knew it. “Cars 2” was largely slammed by critics, despite grossing about $560 million in the worldwide box office.

Had Pixar, the studio that rattled off 11-straight truly great films prior, jumped the shark on its most recent venture?

The answer is no, thank sweet Jesus, even if its latest doesn’t quite measure up to some of the studio’s greatest hits.

“Brave” is Pixar’s first non-sequel since 2009. Originally titled “The Bear and the Bow” and helmed by Brenda Chapman, “Brave” was renamed and the director’s chair was reassigned to Mark Andrews in 2010, with Pixar citing “creative differences” for the change-up.

What could have been a film stuck in the peril of development hell has turned out to be a wonderful, charming film, even if it doesn’t match up to the boldness of “Up” and “WALL-E” or the emotional resonance of “Toy Story 3.”

“Brave” follows Merida (Kelly Macdonald), a Scottish princess who prefers archery to the pomp of royal behavior and spurns the notion of suitors fighting for her hand in marriage.

When her mom, Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson), insists she find a suitor and ditch the archery, Merida casts a perilous spell on her, and must race to reverse it before her father, King Fergus (Billy Connolly), unfortunately intervenes.

Pixar had long been criticized – one of the studio’s only real lasting criticisms – that it never really featured a strong, female lead. That is tossed out with “Brave,” as Merida has no interest in being the standard fussy, longing Disney princess. Instead she’s a badass with a bow and arrow who wants nothing to do with her suitors.

Pixar could have overcompensated. We could have gotten some real in-your-face feminism, but we don’t. Instead we get a heartwarming mother-daughter tale, in which the mother, too, kicks ass, but in a different form than one might imagine.

For all intents and purposes, “Brave” is Pixar’s first fairytale, though make no mistake: This isn’t a cookie-cutter Disney fairytale. There are fantastical elements, yes, but there aren’t any fairy godmothers or poison apples.

It’s not the most original concept, and Pixar has done well to carve its own niche without ever needing a Disney-style musical or fairytale, but “Brave” does it well enough so that it never feels too familiar.

For all its merits, “Brave” does feel a bit too much like DreamWorks Animation’s 2010 hit “How to Train Your Dragon,” which isn’t a bad thing. Pixar certainly didn’t plagiarize it, but it’s one of the first of the studio’s products to feel as if we might have seen it before.

It also doesn’t pack the same emotional punch as other Pixar entries such as “Toy Story 3” and “Up.” While “Brave” certainly does have its moments – mostly between Merida and her mother – it never resonates as much as its predecessors.

It might be a bit unfair, however, to expect every Pixar film to be another “Up” or “WALL-E” or “Toy Story 3.” Those are some lofty expectations to meet year-in and year-out, and sometimes it’s not going to work out.

That said, “Brave” is still largely a success. The visuals are outright gorgeous and possibly the best we’ve seen yet in 3-D animation, but that’s to be expected as technology improves by the second. Patrick Doyle’s sweeping score is pretty, though, at times, is a bit stereotypical.

In 30 years, “Brave” won’t be regarded as highly as Pixar’s other projects, but that’s OK. It’s still wonderfully charming and an all-around good time, even if it’s not the most impressive horse in the studio’s stable.

Grade: B+

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