Brave is not about a Rebellious Princess who undergoes an awakening into heroism. Instead, it's about a Rebellious Princess who puts a spell on her mother in order to break out of the role, and must right her wrong. There's also a lot of comic relief, an impending clan war, and an evil monster bear.
There were some good parts to this movie, some parts that didn't work, and an it overally defines the term "mixed bag", and thus leaves a viewer wanting a little bit more, for it to stick to what it established.
Because Merida ends up turning her mother into a bear as a result of the usual "spirit not letter" wish, and then refuses to admit it is her fault, the movie places Merida's mother, Queen Elinor, on the moral high ground. True, Merida and her mother both must reconcile their dislike of each other in order to break the spell before it becomes permanent, but Merida is further in the wrong right from the start.
Merida's objections to stifling protocol and an arranged marriage are played like the carping of a spoiled brat, and her objections never feel as though the narrative takes them seriously. She is also the one who cast that damaging wish, and clan war starts brewing over her defiance of that arranged marriage. When Merida must finally fight a monster, all her crack shooting with arrows becomes completely ineffective. This all makes it clear that Brave wishes to tell a story that questions the value of the cherished fantasy archetype.
In the end, however, Brave becomes hesitant about any of these things. Despite all the dumping on Merdia, the narrative still decides to stick with modern values. Merida declares that people can choose who they love instead of engaging in contests for her. It feels like lip service, since the implication is that the three clan princes are still all she can choose from, and of course because Brave was, up till that point, not celebrating female rebellion.
The best thing to come out of the film is the relationship between Merida and her mother, Elinor. It's rare that a mother/daughter relationship is at the centre of an animated fantasy film, and the reconciliation between the two is honest and heartfelt, but it only begins when Merida tries to make good on her mistake.
Elinor is also not a strawman, since her desires are instead connected to current practical need as stemming from tradition. However, developed characters does not mean a movie is neutral, and it is exactly because Elinor's concerns are justified that Brave appears to challenge the Rebellious Princess myth.
Another false impression that Brave gives from the trailers was that it would be a more dramatic and earnest film than it was. As it happens, there is a lot of comic relief, which isn't grating if a viewer expected it, but it's disappointing when it seemed Brave was to be going in a more straightforward direction.
Most of this comic relief comes from the entire male cast. Merida's father King Fergus is a ferocious warrior and loving father, but he's also there to be "the fun parent" and "the goofy dad". Queen Elinor is clearly the one who wears the "pants" in the castle and the only one concerned with making sure it's running smoothly. As a result, Fergus is just comic relief, and stacked up against his wife's emotional growth, is a weak character. When Pixar movies are usually so good, to see such a lazy dynamic between the parents is disappointing.
The other clan heads and their sons are even sillier, which makes the threat of impending war harder to take seriously. Because they are such silly characters, one could think that this is a concession to the championing of western values, a knock on arranged marriage, but it's difficult to shake the impression given by the main storyline. There is still potential war going on, however comical it looks.
Add to this Merida's little brothers, who are only named once and no lines at all, it seems like the movie built up its central female dynamic and just decided to call it a day, instead of creating a fully fleshed-out cast of both genders.
However, there's also a lot of slapstick coming from the female characters. The transformed Elinor refuses to get rid of her crown or dainty behaviour, and communicates through pantomime and anthropomorphic expressions. The forest witch also sells bear carvings, with an entire hut full of quirky wooden automatons, and also puts on a welding mask to use her cauldron, which also functions as a voicemail. There's a maid who always screams and is tormented by the princes. It's all just a little too goofy.
Another problem is the antagonist Mor'du, the monstrous bear of legend. Mor'du was once a man, fighting his brothers for control of a kingdom. He wished "for the strength of ten men" and became a giant bear instead. There are reasons for him to be in the film: he appears in the cold open and took Fergus's leg, his legend is what Elinor uses to try to teach Merida a lesson, and the forest witch implies she was responsible for him, too. His fate reinforces the notion that you must Be Careful What You Wish For, and reminds viewers that Elinor's transformation could become permanent. However, Mor'du only appears at the beginning and the middle of the film. He is connected to the story, but it's a weak link, because when Mor'du is not there, his presence is not missed.
In fact, because the film already has the mother/daughter conflict, the need to break the spell, and the need to reconcile the hostile clans, Mor'du feels like a fifth wheel, maybe added only because of the false expectation an animated family film must have a villain.
In the middle of this muddle, viewers might ask why the film is called Brave when it's not about a heroic rite of passage. The most likely explanation is Merida is "Brave" for admitting her mother could be right, and that the spell was her fault and not the witch's. In addition, Elinor and Merida are both "brave" for reconciling themselves to each other's worldview. If this was the intention, however, the theme does not hang strongly enough. As mentioned above, it obvious that Merida needs to change far more than Elinor does, and the film still waffles, unable to commit to the criticisms it makes.
Many have compared the film to How to Train Your Dragon, but the similarities are only surface, coming from their visual motifs. There is a fundamental difference between the two movies, which is that Hiccup learns he can be himself instead of being the Viking boy his father wants him to be, while Merida learns that being the princess girl her mother wants her to be isn't that bad. How to Train Your Dragon also sticks absolutely to its theme and makes it clear, while Brave backs off.
The overlaid comic relief, the fifth-wheel antagonist, are also problems. As a final cap, the movie also feels derivative and predictable. Much of Merida and Elinor's arguments have a familiar ring, as does the fact of wishes that backfire, and the sitcom dynamic between husband and wife. Many events are easy to call before they happen.
These facts are as disappointing as they are aggravating. Brave represented a change for Pixar, its first attempt at heroic fantasy and its first film with a female protagonist, and it could have been much better than it was. This doesn't represent a permanent step down for Pixar, but it is a sad thing.