What matters about Brave is that it is not like about 90 percent of the schlock shoved down the throats of families that are offered so little in the way of options at the theater these days. What doesn't is that it, according to a number of critics, isn't "up to the standard" of Pixar's other great films. Since when is not being WALL-E or Up -- two of the best films of the last decade, period -- the sort of crime worthy of critical derision and a label like mediocrity?
It seems like there's nothing easier in the industry right now than making a boatload of cash off of a computer-animated family film. What else is there to say when two of the top five movies of 2012 are The Lorax and Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted? Because it's so easy to make money on them and because the animation gets more and more spectacular each year, I think the quality of the stories can often suffer (for more on this read my review of The Lorax.) Pixar Studios has mostly been above that phenomenon, which is remarkable considering this is its 13th feature-length release, and Brave does nothing to diminish that sterling record.
It's possible that the negativity from some critics actually worked to set my expectations below where they ordinarily would have been. Mostly, though, I think Brave was a very good movie that falls short of being a true Pixar classic. Again, that's not exactly damning considering the studio's track record.
Set in a Medieval and mystical version of Scotland, Brave wastes no time introducing headstrong Princess Merida (voiced by Kelly MacDonald of Boardwalk Empire fame) and the rest of her family -- Queen Elinor (voiced by Emma Thompson), King Fergus (voiced by Billy Connolly) and her three mischievous brothers. Merida, a tomboy who loves archery, is matched in her headstrong ways only by her mother, who desperately wants her daughter to choose a husband and behave as a princess should, leaving the bow and arrow behind. Therein lies the central conflict of the film -- one that kicks into another gear when Merida unwittingly puts her mother under a powerful spell.
Brave tries to tackle quite a bit on the way to its conclusion and is clumsy in doing so at times. Maybe that's where it doesn't quite fit in with the Pixar canon. The overbearing mother-rebellious/ungrateful daughter relationship is central to the story, of course. There's also a haphazard examination of fate vs. free will (mostly at the very beginning and at the very end). And I can't help but see Merida as the latest in a long line of Disney princesses. Yes, she is the first Pixar princess -- indeed, the first Pixar heroine to date -- but I couldn't help but think of Belle and Jasmine and even Mulan at different points during the movie. In that respect, particularly, I think the folks at Pixar deserve a ton of credit. Merida stood all on her own as a character; there was no need to lean on the crutch of a prince/love interest to move things along.
Clumsy as it was at times, I was never bored by Brave, which looked spectacular (Merida's curly red locks are truly worthy of marvel given what went into getting them on-screen), and even at 100 minutes it never felt plodding or slow, despite its abnormal length for a family film. Even though I had a pretty good idea how things would end, I still felt visceral tension as Merida tried to save the day -- usually a pretty good sign that whatever you're watching is effective on at least a basic level.
That Brave is not transcendent only matters if you want to set totally unrealistic expectations for Pixar Studios and the larger universe of filmmakers going forward. Doing so is your prerogative, but it will also set you up for a whole lot of disappointment.