1. The brand Pixar has become so powerful and so reliable in the last decade that we forget that's all it is: A brand. We assume every new Pixar film will be well thought out and impeccably constructed, like the Pixar crew is one hivemind that taps into the American subconscious and springs a neverending well of quick-witted, soul-stirring, demographically universal stories that everyone nods along with, together as one. But it's not, of course: Pixar is just a movie studio like any other, capable of rush jobs and cash grabs and bet-hedging. That they have taken risks in the past—most notably with Wall-E, a movie that seems more miraculous the farther away we get from it—does not makes them more likely to push the envelope in the future; it's the exact opposite. So last year, we get Cars 2, a movie I like but is as safe a bet as white bread. And this year, we get Brave, perhaps the least ambitious film they've ever made. I don't remember a time Pixar has expended so little energy to entertain us.
2. The issues are almost entirely with story, which is typically Pixar's strength. Merida is a princess betrothed to marry a rival kingdom's prince, a predetermined relationship she understandably fights against, especially because she yearns to be a great warrior like her father. Curiously, the movie turns her father (and all the male characters, really) into a buffoon, making her primary adversary her mother the Queen (voiced by Emma Thompson), who constantly rides her on what is proper and appropriate for a princess. So far, so good, if nothing particularly original: It's a standard story about a tomboy princess who lusts for a quest of her own, a striving for freedom and independence, with some Stonehenge-type structures thrown in to give the movie some mystical resonance. You're fully expecting a full-throated action adventure in the second half of the movie, as Merida fights like her father while learning that her mother has a few lessons to teach as well.
3. That is not what happens. I am hesitant to give away the movie's big plot twist halfway through, but suffice it to say, when it happens, it's a needle-off-the-record moment that sends the movie careening off in an entirely different, much dumber direction. It signals that the movie is about to go silly on us, and not in a "Look, I'm Woody, howdy howdy howdy" fun silly direction. The mystery and potential scope of the first half is just sent flying off the back of the truck, and the movie becomes an odd mix of slapstick and fairy-tale flimsiness, an utterly conventional tale of derring-do that keeps bumping into the lane of the faintly ridiculous. The movie's second half is a weirdly aimless slog, as if it forget all the threads it set up in the first half. If I didn't know it was animated, I'd have thought they had to bring all the cast together for some last-minute emergency reshoots.
4. I also don't remember the last time a Pixar film had such a tin ear for comedy, either. Scenes that are ostensibly played for laughs consistently fall flat, and dare I say it, there are some moments (particularly involving the mother after the plot twist) that the film borders perilously on the edge of camp. The movie isn't even all that consistent about the rules in its own imaginary universe, particularly when it comes to magic, which Brave introduces suddenly and half-heartedly, the lazy poison pill that both moves along the plot and illustrates how little it's willing to work. One of the keys to Pixar films' success is that they feel as if they've been made by obsessives; people obsessive to detail, sure, but also by people who seem to truly love their subject matter. (Ratatouille is totally made by foodies.) Here, the movie looks half-hearted, like everyone felt obliged to make it, rather than compelled. In a lot of ways, it feels like a PR campaign in search of a story. Pixar has long been criticized for being a boy's club, so now we have a movie with a mother-daughter relationship at the center of it. The problem is that you can't help but wonder if that's where the thought process stalled.
5. There's a good movie in here somewhere, evidenced in late scenes involving the mother and daughter that would have real emotional resonance had the film earned it. (Every mother and daughter have had moments when their inherent closeness have caused them to deeply hurt the other in ways only they could. This is a moving idea to put at the center of a kids movie. Just not this one.) And the movie looks undeniably terrific; plenty of thought and effort went into the visuals, from the sweeping panoramas of Scotland to the smallest ringlet of Merida's flowing red hair. But that attention to detail was lacking on the most basic level, the story; this is the first time, narratively, that Pixar hasn't bothered to sweat the small stuff. I'm not sure what the problem is—maybe they just thought having a female lead was enough?—but to see a Pixar movie this sloppy, conventional, and slipshod is downright flabbergasting. Maybe it really is a boy's club after all.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.