After Cars 2, I began to wonder if Pixar’s magic was on a brief hiatus. Sure, Cars 2 isn’t a horrible film. It has some decent qualities, but the entire film just lacks the usual Pixar flair. As a frequent movie-goer, I have to admit that missing that yearly feeling of Pixar awe and wonder really left a hole in my cinematic heart.

There’s just something about Pixar films that give viewers a special feeling. Thinking back on Ratatouille, I remember the flashback sequence to food critic Anton Ego’s childhood – that moment of serene bliss when old Ego remembers the feeling of a home-cooked meal. It’s one of my favorite moments in any movie ever. It’s what I feel when I watch movies that I love – many of them opening with the Pixar logo. So after Cars 2 disappointed, I began to wonder if that feeling would ever come back. Brave, the 13th Pixar film, brought back a few shreds of Pixar’s warmth, but not the entire feeling.

The original fairy tale helped me remember some of the magic from Pixar’s past, but at the end, I just didn’t get full closure. Brave is a very well done Disney movie, but is it a great Pixar movie? That’s the question at hand.

Brave is both an experiment and a dance in the comfort zone for Pixar. While this is the studio’s first fairy tale, Brave features so many staple features of the studio’s lineage of hits that it almost feels as if Pixar is treading light water. While Brave could have used the fierce stamp of originality that previous Pixar films boasted proudly, the film is a nice callback to some of the 90s Disney gems – earnest products that relied on the soaring sensibilities of the studio’s vision. We don’t get an instant classic with Brave, but we do get an endearing look at the relationship between a mother and her daughter.

Princess Merida (voiced nicely by Kelly Macdonald), the strong-willed, vibrant youth of the Scottish DunBroch clan, couldn’t be more of the polar opposite of her prim-and-proper mother, Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson). While Elinor wants her daughter to be the example lady of the court, Merida would much prefer a gallivanting ride on her steed, bow-and-arrow in tow (making her close to her brawny father, King Fergus). Their on-and-off relationship hits a snag when suitors from visiting clans come to fight for Merida’s hand in marriage – an age-old tradition viewed highly by everyone except Merida. When the princess decides to take her fate into her own hands, both she and her mother’s lives are changed instantly.

The story might feel a wee bit routine, but Pixar still manages to give Brave its own unique twist. The latter half of the movie has largely gone unspoiled by the ad campaign, and for the better. Brave works best if you have little-to-no idea where the story will take you. The final product ends up on familiar grounds, but you never once feel cheated or manipulated. The use of crass humor is a first for Pixar, going down a more brutish, slapstick route, but for the setting, it somewhat works.

On the flip side, Pixar also goes down a new path of underdeveloped characters. Besides Merida, Elinor and Fergus, most of Brave’s characters are largely inserted into the story to fill in plot. Pixar films have always benefitted from a glowing cast of supporting players, but I can hardly remember most of Brave’s characters outside of the central three. Sure, the three DunBroch boys get a few good laughs in, but they serve the purpose of pure comic relief – nothing more, nothing less.

I want to note that the animation in this film is quite brilliant. Pixar has always been the studio to look to in regard to lush, gorgeous animation, and Brave does not disappoint. Merida’s flowing hair is an accomplishment of its own. The landscapes are breath-taking, the character designs are inspired, and the attention to detail is keen.

In contrast, the 3D on this film is flat-out awful. For much of the film’s runtime, I was adjusting my eyes and hoping the image would finally mesh together. Pixar usually can host decent 3D, but this time around, I found myself extremely disappointed in the usage (especially in darker settings – yikes). Brave is a film that needs to be seen in 2D.

In the end, Brave really does mark a return to quality for Pixar. I don’t feel downright disappointed this time around, but I’m not incredibly impressed either. The studio turned out a solid product, but you can’t help but miss the sweeping brilliance of the studio’s films up to 2010’s Toy Story 3 (yes, I include Cars in there).

Next year, the studio takes us back to Monstropolis to see Mike and Sully’s college days in Monsters University before taking on some more original ideas. I hope that Brave is a warm-up lap for the second age of Pixar glory. I could use a healthy dose of Pixar magic.

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