Saturday, June 23, 2012

Brave - An old, familiar tune

Brave is a somewhat unique entry to the Pixar pantheon in that it's not about talking toys, talking bugs, talking monsters, talking superheroes, talking cars, or talking animals (well, the last one's not entirely true, but is close enough). Ironically enough, a studio who's made bank time and time again by setting familiar stories in dazzlingly original settings is taking the up-til-now unfamiliar approach of setting a familiar story in a familiar setting. 

Borrowing more than a bit from The Little Mermaid, Brave is the story of Merida, a Scottish princess who'd rather ride around on horseback all day than live up to what her mother thinks a princess ought to be. When her parents invite the leaders of the realm's other 3 clans to present their sons in a competition for Merida's hand, things go a bit amok when she tries to take hold of her own fate.

Simply put, this is a good film, but not one of the great films that Pixar's proven capable of so many times in the past. That said, Brave is a perfectly fine, highly entertaining experience. So, it this bad thing? Not really. While I'd certainly love to have another instant classic on my hands, I can't deny that I had a good time with this one. While it might not hit the stunning heights of Finding Nemo, The Incredibles or Toy Story 3, it certainly doesn't come anywhere close to plumbing the dregs of last year's dead-on-arrival Cars 2.

Unsurprisingly, the animation is stunning. Merida's hair, in particular, is ridiculously lifelike. Much in the way that the wispy wonder that was Sully's body carpet amazed in 2001's Monsters, Inc., Merida's curly red mane flows, bounces, and goes in every direction at once with ease. In the past, the look of each new Pixar film resulted in a noticeable leap forward for CG animation. While that's certainly slowed down in recent times, as technology's kinda hit a plateau, there's usually one (at least!) standout element each time around, and this time, it's those pretty remarkable scarlet locks.

Brave is also wonderfully funny. In each Pixar film, there's usually a character or group of characters that are explicit comic relief, for better or worse. Let's just say that Merida has triplet brothers that are much too smart for their age, and I loved every second of screen time that they got. There are other ways that the film successfully subverts the traditional fairytale, often for comedic effect, but I won't go into detail for risk of spoiling anything.

Somewhat surprisingly, there's a fair bit of action that justify the MPAA's PG rating. While Pixar's films aren't necessarily all sunshine and rainbows, I was a bit taken aback at just how physical some of the film's battle sequences are. 

Speaking of spoilers, this is the first Pixar film I can think of with a genuine plot twist. In an age of trailers that reveal everything of interest about a film with the exception of those clearly labeled "THIS IS A FILM WITH A MAJOR TWIST. STAY OFF THE INTERNET," the direction that Brave takes truly surprised me. I'll just suggest that the film's original title, The Bear and the Bow, was perfectly fitting and shouldn't have been abandoned in the first place. 

So, why the hesitation? It's all about emotional investment. With Pixar's best films, there's an immediate hook that engages the viewer immediately that can come from a variety of places, be it a quirky character, ingenious setup, or beautiful moment. Then, when the conclusion rolls around, it hits like a hammer to the heart, because there's so much riding on the narrative from the viewer's perspective. To that point, Brave just isn't that creative from a narrative standpoint.

There's been a lot of hoopla about the fact that this is Pixar's first film with a female main protagonist, but I wonder if that's actually what's tipped the creative team toward a tried-and-true formula. If you're going to tell a story about a young woman, why not frame it in some way that's a bit different from the atypical freedom narrative? How about actually embracing her femininity by making her a typical young woman of the time, stranding her in the wilderness and forcing her to learn how to survive? It's a bit reductive to always play the "I'm a girl, but I'd rather be free like a boy!" card.

Simply put, this is a story you've heard before. It's a good story, and you'll probably like it. 

But you've heard it before.

3 1/2 stars (out of 5)


Anonymous said...

The first 30 minutes or so had me pumped up like no other but once that big twist in the story happens, it all goes downhill from there. However, kids will love the heck out of this film and you can’t go wrong with them. Nice review Adam.

Adam said...

Thanks for reading! One thing that particularly interests me about the response to Brave is the way that people seem to be seeing the same film and recognizing the same issues with its structure but having very different reactions. All too often with diverging opinions on films, there's a strong "What are you smoking? How can you like/dislike this?" approach, so I find it very interesting to see such a relatively minute subjective divergence of opinion.

Anonymous said...

I know this is a review for Brave, but I must (once again) stick up for Cars 2. It’s lesser Pixar to be sure, but there is a certain heady delight in all the attention to detail with actual car models and what they represent. Professor Zündapp is modeled after a Zündapp Janus 250. The writers have done their homework! But I digress, back to Brave.

I pretty much agree with everything you said about Brave. There’s a greater feeling of disappointment in my review and that’s probably because I was expecting something more innovative. So much of the film resorted to slapstick in the middle where they were trying to “undo something that had been done.“ Pixar has taught me to expect a lot from them. Something I didn’t mention in my review was the outstanding voice casting of Kelly Macdonald ad Emma Thompson. Their engaging work alluded to a depth the story kind of lacked.

Adam said...

I'm one of the (somewhat, at least among certain circles) rare people who loves Cars. I mean, I really love Cars. That said, Cars 2 is one of the single most disappointing sequels in recent memory. There's just no reason to continue that story, and I was incredibly disappointed in the lackluster treatment of such great characters. I mean, it's not like we need Finding Nemo Again, is it?

I agree with you about the quality of Brave's voice work. It's just unfortunate that Pixar didn't seize the opportunity to really make the statement that they could have. I mean, it's got the double whammy of being their first fairytale and their first film with a female protagonist. I'd have loved to see what the brains at Pixar could have come up with to reinvent the animation's go-to genre. Alas, maybe we'll have to wait for Braver for that to happen . . .