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Well-made ‘Brave’ plays it safe

Well-made ‘Brave’ plays it safe

Published: 12:08 PM, 06/28/2012

Perhaps “Cars 2” was a blessing in disguise.

As Pixar’s first lemon, it lowered the animation gurus’ bar to embarrassing, Larry the Cable Guy-ish depths. Conversely, that meant anything else the studio produced would be a step up, right?

“Brave” offers a resounding “aye,” accompanied by a heralding blast of bagpipes.

It’s the Disney-owned studio’s most Disney film to date, more juvenile and straightforward than Pixar’s previous outings, but still a remarkable step above the competition. Whereas features like “Up,” “WALL-E” and “The Incredibles” offer adults something to laugh and think about, while also tugging on a few heartstrings, “Brave” is more of a simplistic fairy tale, but one of the best kids’ movies in quite some time.

While most animated kids’ fare is laden with computer-generated talking animals exchanging fart jokes when they’re not rapping and dancing, Pixar entertains its audience through character and story, even delivering a wholesome message without blaring it through a loudspeaker.

Set in medieval Scotland, “Brave” is the story of Princess Merida (Kelly MacDonald, HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire”). The eldest child of King Fergus (Billy Connolly, “The Boondock Saints”) and Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson, “Stranger Than Fiction”), Merida would rather be an adventurer – a desire encouraged by her father and frowned upon by her mother. Although an expert archer, her real aim is to be free, which doesn’t bode well with royal tradition.

The kingdom’s three prominent clans are already en route to the royal castle, where a suitor from each hopes to win Merida’s hand.

But Merida has other plans. When one of them is foiled, she turns to desperation – and a witch (Julie Walters, the “Harry Potter” series). The princess asks for a potion that would change her mother, thereby changing her fate, and the witch is a little too happy to oblige. The potion does as the witch said it would, but with surprising – and potentially deadly – consequences.

It’s here where “Brave” takes a turn for the unexpected, but not necessarily for the better. After the initial surprise, the film treads into safe and familiar Disney territory, rather than forging a new trail as Pixar’s usually known to do. After a promising first act, the second is somewhat underwhelming.

The film’s trailers never revealed much of the plot, and kudos to the studio for maintaining an element of surprise in a Hollywood where previews show anything and everything from the movies they’re promoting.

In keeping that spirit, I’ll leave it at this: “Brave” becomes rather bear-centric, and I say this mainly to praise the animators’ efforts on some creative and funny physical comedy.

As to be expected from Pixar, the animation is brilliant, perhaps even more so than in previous pictures. Merida’s flowing mane of red curls is so rich in texture and movement that the difference between cartoon and live action is practically indistinguishable. “Brave” features some of Pixar’s most photo-realistic work to date, and the cartoonish characters actually look tangible at times, as do their richly rendered, colorful surroundings.

The voice work is also spot-on, especially from Connolly, MacDonald and Thompson, although the clan leaders are played to hilarious effect by Robbie Coltrane (the “Harry Potter” series), Kevin McKidd (HBO’s “Rome”) and Craig Ferguson (TV’s “The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson”).

It’s quality entertainment, but not Pixar’s best. The studio has built such a solid reputation that anything less than excellent seems merely OK by comparison. “Brave” is an excellent kids’ movie, whereas “Up” is an excellent movie. The folks at Pixar are known for making multi-layered films that viewers of all ages can enjoy equally, but for different reasons.

“Brave” gives viewers plenty of reasons, but, unfortunately, depth isn’t one of them.

“Brave,” rated PG for some scary action and rude humor, is playing at Regal Cinema 7 in Boone. For show times, see page 15-B or visit