Something happened to Pixar Studios in 2011. After 11 consecutive artistic and commercial successes, peaking with Toy Story 3, their all-time box office champ (on paper, anyway; Finding Nemo sold more tickets), they released Cars 2. And suddenly, for the first time, Pixar wasn't cool. It wasn't just because they were following up mature, emotionally gripping set pieces in Up and Toy Story 3 with Larry the Cable Guy's lame shtick. It was also because they took the one movie that the studio's hipper fans found lacking, and gave it a sequel - not for creative reasons, but because the preschool set had turned Cars merchandise into a major cash cow for the company. It was a shockingly cynical move on Pixar's part, and grown-ups smelled it a mile away. So while the kiddies no doubt ate it up, Cars 2 became the first Pixar film not to be nominated for a Best Animated Feature Oscar since the award was invented, it scored the worst reviews of any Pixar release, and it brought in the lowest domestic revenue since A Bug's Life - and that came out 13 years earlier, with fewer screens and no 3D price bump.
Then the studio's "brain trust" fumbled again with John Carter - a live action picture, sure, but one developed at Disney, championed by Pixar head honcho John Lasseter, cowritten by longtime Pixar staffer Mark Andrews, and all the vision of Pixar inner circle member Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo, WALL-E), making his live action directorial debut. This may be why Brave has received more attention than expected for the studio's decision to fire Brenda Chapman, their first female director overseeing their first female-centric title, and replacing her with Andrews. Sure, they replaced directors before - Ratatouille is a famous example. But that wasn't a controversial decision, as original helmer Jan Pinkava is a nobody while replacement director Brad Bird is an animation god who had already given the world The Iron Giant and The Incredibles. There may be no one at Pixar who can match Bird's talent, including second-stringer Andrews. All the behind-the-scenes issues may have dulled the excitement over Brave, which is not performing on par with recent Pixar features (Cars 2 notwithstanding).
In short, audiences have seen Pixar's feet of clay, and now the studio has to regain their love. That's a good thing, but given the long development time of an animated feature, the results won't be apparent for a couple more years. Until then, we have Brave, a likeable enough trifle about a Scottish princess in an unspecified past century who defies her mother's orders to choose a future husband, then seeks out a witch's spell to change her mother's mind. The spell changes a lot more than that, and the adventures begin. But whereas Brad Bird's takeover of Ratatouille brought a new auteur's eye to the story, creating a lovely and enormously entertaining meditation on creativity, Brenda Chapman's and Mark Andrews' separate visions for Brave never gel. I'm ignorant about each person's ultimate contributions, but one can imagine which parts of the story come from Chapman and which from Andrews. On the one hand, it's a wonderfully bold move to center the film on a mother/daughter relationship - something very rarely seen in American cinema, and certainly not in an adventure movie - and that likely stemmed from Chapman, who was said to pitch the film based on her own relationship with her daughter. But this sidles up uncomfortably against loads of macho buffoonery amongst the supporting male cast, and that seems likely to be all Andrews' doing.
I actually went to college with Mark Andrews, and while I didn't know him personally, I saw him around campus all the time, usually swaggering down the hallways wearing sleeveless muscle T-shirts and a smug grin. There was a bravado about him that I disliked, though he must have something going for him, as a very nice lady I went to school with (and who holds the unique distinction of having played my would-be romantic interest in a thesis film we both acted in) wound up marrying him, and they've been together for twenty years. Anyway, I do recall Mark's interest in knightly battle and all that (he even wrote a silly one-act play called, I believe, Thrust of Steel, featuring lots of swordfighting), so it must have been a no-brainer to bring him on and make Brave a little more like Braveheart. And I'm sure the folks at Pixar and those who love the film will appreciate the contrast between Chapman's thoughtful feminine sensibilities and Andrews' boisterous masculine ones. But for me, it results in a storyline that lacks a central voice. More to the point, though, Brave lacks the suspense and breathless pace that the best Pixar films are famous for. It's got a sweet-natured demeanor and it looks nice, but there's something weirdly generic about it. In the end, this is good, not great, Pixar. Its quality may match the competition's better films, such as Kung Fu Panda, but it doesn't stand up to the studio's best work.