First things first: Merida's hair is glorious. I'm not an animator and I don't work with computer graphics very much, but I have a detail oriented mindset and thus I think I can appreciate all the work that went into getting that hair to work so well. Apparently there was a whole team of folks at Pixar working on a new hair simulator that could handle Merida's curly red hair, and again, I'm no expert in this realm, but I'm guessing the amount of physics that went into modeling how different bits of the hair worked was large and complex. Then they had to tweak it all to simulate wet hair (for what I believe is only a single scene in the movie). It's impressive stuff.
So... is the movie Brave as good as the hair portrayed within? Maybe! It's not a top tier Pixar production, but I'd put it somewhere towards the top of their middle tier. Which is to say, it's better than most films (animated or not). Pixar is at a strange place right now. After an impressive run in the oughts, they appear to be running out of steam. Or are they? It's strange that every time a new Pixar film is released, there seems to be a referendum on the whole of their oeuvre. People love to rank the films and argue whether or not they've made a truly bad film (for the record, I don't think they have, even if I didn't love Cars 2).
And this film had even weightier expectations because it was the first Pixar film to feature a female as the protagonist. It was also the first Pixar film to be directed by a woman, though she was apparently replaced at some point in the production, leading to a co-director credit. In recent years, there's been a fair amount of talk about Pixar's gender problem, but I'm on record as arguing that this sort of analysis completely misses the point: "Traditional Disney fare was always a sorta female dominated affair. Lots of princesses and love stories and yada, yada, yada. There were the occasional male-dominated stories, of course, but overall, animation was female dominated. One of the big things Pixar did to establish itself as something new and different was to focus on boys ..." Put simply, I don't think this movie is getting a fair shake in this respect. If this was a Disney or even Dreamworks picture, I think folks would be raving, but they expected so much from Pixar that I think the film is getting crushed under that weight of undeserved expectation.
I appear to be playing into this a little bit. I mean, I've written three paragraphs already and I haven't actually said anything about the movie, except how awesome the hair is. And while the curly red hair is spectacular, it's also a bit superficial. So let's get into it. The film focuses on young Scottish princess Merida, a fiery tomboy who loves riding her horse, archery, and climbing mountains. Her mother is in a constant struggle to get her to act all lady-like, but her father seems content to encourage her less elegant pursuits. Things come to a head when visiting clans vie for Merida's hand in marriage. I will admit, this is something of a rote premise. The initial parts of the first act come off as being very Disneyish. There's even some bad Scottish kilt-lifting jokes (which I suppose are unavoidable, but still). Now, "Disneyish" isn't inherently bad, but I can totally see why people wouldn't be very thrilled by this setup. Fortunately things get better from here.
It's hard to describe the rest without getting into spoiler territory, but I'll try. In essence, Merida runs away and meets up with a witch and there's a curse and she ends up spending some time with a friendly bear. And it's fantastic. This is where the movie sets itself apart. The bear is fantastically animated, walking around on two legs and somehow managing to maintain some sense of dignity, though I think the bear eventually learns the value in acting in an undignified manner.
The real heart of the story, though, is Merida's relationship with her mother. This, I find, isn't something that's very common in movies like this (I could certainly be wrong about that, but I found it refreshing). Now, I'm a guy, so I don't know how well the movie actually captures that whole dynamic, but it's got a ring of authenticity to it (and in general, female critics seem to praise this part of the film, even when they don't like it overall). There's an excellent scene in the first act where the director is cross cutting between the mother and daughter, establishing the things they want to say to each other but can't or won't. There's some stuff in the second act that works really well between these two, which leads into the final act. There's a bit of a grinch-like transformation at one point, making me wish there was perhaps a little more meat on the bone of the story, but there's a clear throughline to the plotting that ultimately works well. In a very real sense, the movie is as much about the mother as it is about the teenager (which, again, is a refreshing change of pace).
It's a movie that isn't perfect. It did leave me wanting more - more of the mother/daughter relationship, heck more of the father/daughter stuff, even some more of the little brothers, and especially more of that excellent second act stuff with the bear - but that's not the worst problem a movie can have. Like I said, there's a clear throughline to the story, so I'm willing to go with it. The premise is a bit rote and the transition between acts is a bit rushed, but I think they managed to put enough of a spin on the typical "princess" story that it was worthwhile. The score is fine but the songs are dreadful. That's the one part of the film I don't think I can really overlook. Just horrid.
What we're left with is a very good film. I think it's being a bit unfairly maligned. It's true, Pixar has done better, but that doesn't make this a bad movie. I don't know that it will make the top 10 at the end of the year, but it will certainly be a contender. Well worth seeing, and I think that mothers and daughters will get a lot out of this (but don't worry, there's plenty of action and adventure for the guys). ***