While Pixar has had many many many fantastic successes, and nearly every movie they've made has been a bonafide masterpiece, it seems like most people, critics especially, tend to view the three movies Pixar released from 2007-2009 as being the best in their 26 year, 13 feature history. Those movies were Ratatouille, WALL•E, and Up; and they each featured high concept stories, deep and sophisticated themes, and, in many ways, spoke more to the grown-ups in the audience than they did to the kids while still being great movies for the entire family to enjoy together. These three films, which are arguably as close to perfect as any movie has ever come, combined with Pixar's nearly spotless history, unfortunately may have set the bar so high that no one, not even Pixar could ever hope to top it.
That brings us to Brave. Let me just be upfront in saying that Brave is a *really* good movie. It has fantastic and fully realized characters, it has a strong emotional core, it has great performances, it looks stunning, and it has an absolutely beautiful soundtrack. The story is set in a mythical version of Scotland, where Princess Merida is about to be betrothed to the first born son of one of the three other Lords of the kingdom, however, Merida is not ready for marriage and, in fact, would much rather be free to make her own way in the world than be bound by the traditions of her kingdom. After a heated argument with her mother she flees the kingdom and happens upon a witch who gives her a spell that will allow her to change her fate.
If a lot of this sounds familiar (and not just from the trailers of the film) you shouldn't be surprised as this essential formula is the basis to more fairy tales than you could count. However, where Brave succeeds is not in the creation of groundbreaking new ideas, but rather in the execution of telling a very classic story and bringing a new and fresh voice to it, much in the same way Disney did back in 1989 and 1991 with The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast. Unlike many fairy tales of recent years, it does not rely on the conventions of the "Disney Fairy Tale Musical" as a crutch, but instead finds a way to make it uniquely their own.
Pixar has always had a knack for creating incredibly endearing and heartfelt characters who, despite being animated, feel just as alive as any other person in the theater, and Brave is certainly no exception. The leap from Belle to Merida is just as significant as the leap from Princess Aurora (Sleeping Beauty) to Ariel. She's a character that I think will resonate not just with young girls, but with many women, especially the ones that are at the threshold of adulthood, and the relationship between her and her mother is very poignant.
The story itself doesn't break any new ground, and if you've ever seen a fairy tale movie before you can call just about every plot beat a few minutes before they arrive, but that doesn't make the film any less effective because the execution is so spot-on. For the same reason you cry when the Beast dies despite the knowledge that, of course, he's going to come back to life you also are completely involved with the emotions and characters of Brave even though you probably already know how it's all going to turn out.
Despite all this, the fact that this isn't an absolute revolution in cinematic history means that it won't live up to the "Pixar legacy" in many people's minds. I, however, have always considered Pixar's legacy to be more about the emphasis on characters and honest emotions than about breaking new ground and doing the unexpected. Sure, that's an important part of what's made many of their past successes great, but in my book that is still secondary to simply telling a solid story with great characters and sincere emotions, and with perhaps the exception of Cars 2, Pixar has never once forsaken that legacy. It may not be the best movie Pixar has ever made, but Brave is still a great film, and in my opinion the best fairy tale that Disney has put their name on since 1991.