Perhaps the greatest challenge faced by Pixar is not the onwards march of technology, nor even the company's glittering past. It's their new parent, Disney. Brave looks like a Pixar film, featuring incredible sequences that inspire physical excitement alongside the low laughs of high slapstick. But outside of the delightful short that opens things, it rarely feels like one.
That's hardly to say Brave is a bad movie: any other animation studio would kill to produce something like this. But it is a somewhat superficial one, always hinting at deeper undercurrents but lacking the thematic coherence of an Up or Wall-E. The scene is Scotland in the 10th or 11th century, a quasi-medieval and lush landscape ruled over by King Fergus (raucously voiced by Connolly) and Queen Elinor (the ever-flawless Thompson), whose rebellious daughter Merida (MacDonald) does anything but what she's told. When the time comes for her to marry a prince from one of the local clans, as princesses must, she refuses – and in the face of her parents' stubborn insistence, Merida's wilfulness leads her to a witch's charm and predictable consequences.
To give the specifics risks ruining one of Brave's few surprises, but even the densest child will surely see this one coming. Regardless, getting there is a gorgeous ride with Pixar producing landscapes that imbue Scotland's awesome scenery with a warm fantasy glow. The craggy mountains spike out of ground that seems to swallow the characters' feet, the bounce of the highlands underfoot caught exquisitely in the thick grass and dusting of heather. Changes in weather are so subtle you might miss them on the first viewing, with the bright sun of the movie's early part gradually giving way to fog and rain that's imperceptible until almost overwhelming.
Two other visual achievements deserve special mention. Merida's hair, a great furze-bush of red where every strand has a life of its own, makes even Disney's own Tangled seem like a last generation before Hair 2.0. And Merida's horse, Angus, is an ever-galloping phenomenon, his thrilling sequences leaving you breathless with physical excitement and overwhelming detail – never has an animated animal looked so entire, so alive.
So another A+ for Pixar's visual artists and animators, joined by an audio team that somehow make the bagpipes seem like an instrument of import rather than torture. But where Brave is lacking is the story arc, where the gentle subversion and layers of Pixar's other work are hard to find. This is a story about mothers and daughters, and how unconditional love survives the friction and sometimes outright hostility of teenage years. Queen Elinor wants Merida to accept and grow into her role in society, thus keeping the bonds of an often fractious nation strong. Merida, as she memorably puts it during an archery competition to decide on her marriage partner, is "shooting for my own hand".
The rest of the family are fun enough, but their importance to this relationship is limited to King Fergus mediating on the periphery – Merida's younger brothers, a terrible trio who like stealing cakes and making mischief, are no more than comedy ciphers. As a whole, they're certainly not The Incredibles.
In the main chunk of the story, Elinor and Merida end up trying to survive on their own, a series of vignettes that emphasise how adverse circumstances can bring folk together. There's a big moment of peril at the end, before everything works out swimmingly and they're friends again. Brave feels like a film that's tied off in a neat bow, a very pat narrative. Like there's something missing.
This is a straight family fairytale, a pleasant enough watch with several moments of sheer class. Scratch the surface of Brave, and it feels like perhaps once there was something else here – a darker tale, one more in line with the Brothers Grimm than Uncle Walt. But not this movie. Brave made me laugh, and visually wows on many an occasion. But not once does it threaten to move you.