The latest Pixar offering scores points immediately for not featuring talking cars or being a sequel. In fact, despite the prerequisite thrills and quirky/comedic supporting characters, this is an altogether more serious affair than we’re used to from the studio, where the sense of honing story ingredients into a readily identifiable product has recently become overpowering (even acknowledging the originality on display in something like Up).
Indeed, in form this more resembles one of the traditional Disney animations of the 1950s or ‘60s, with its classical setting (kings, queens and princesses albeit Scottish), magical plot device (witches casting spells) and unselfconscious morality play. Unusually (for an animation) the tale revolves around the relationship between a mother and daughter, featuring a twist that I only half knew (but the half I didn’t know is everything in terms of how that relationship, and the story, plays out).
The voice work is unobtrusive, with the notable exception of Billy Connolly, although anyone who knows Kelly Macdonald can’t fail to recognise her; she’s perfect, and we/re fortunate she wasn’t played by original choice Reese Witherspoon. I didn’t even recognise Emma Thompson as her mother.
The troubled production history isn’t evident in the finished film; Brenda Chapman was replaced by consultant Mark Andrews (they receive co-director credits with Steve Purcell), and one might deduce that the film was initially more female-centric than Pixar was comfortable with, or lacked the list of ingredients that must be present for one of their films to succeed. Nevertheless, the result feels fresh, the animation is frequently wondrous (particularly so, following several plasticky sequels) and it serves as a reminder of what the studio is capable of (before it sinks back into total formula with Monsters University).