Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Movie Review: Brave

Brave Directed by: Mark Andrews & Brenda Chapman.
Written by: Mark Andrews and Steve Purcell and Brenda Chapman and Irene Mecchi.
Starring: Kelly Macdonald  (Merida), Billy Connolly (Fergus), Emma Thompson (Elinor), Julie Walters (The Witch), Robbie Coltrane (Lord Dingwall), Kevin McKidd (Lord MacGuffin / Young MacGuffin), Craig Ferguson (Lord Macintosh), Sally Kinghorn (Maudie), Eilidh Fraser (Maudie), Peigi Barker (Young Merida), Steven Cree (Young Macintosh), John Ratzenberger (Gordon).

I doubt that you will see a more stunningly beautiful animated film this year than Brave, the latest movie from Pixar. In the past few years, I have often said that Pixar is the best creative force in mainstream American movies over the past decade – and I still believe that. There are few filmmakers who could claim to have been as consistent as Pixar has been since their inception in 1995. When you look at the fact that since then they have produced Toy Story, Toy Story 2, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Ratatouille, Wall-E to Up and Toy Story 3, all of which are great films, the run is remarkable. When they make a “disappointing” film, it is usually still of very high quality – like A Bug’s Life, Monsters Inc. and Cars, just not quite up to their almost impossibly high standards. Their only true misfire is last year’s Cars 2, which is the type of loud, obnoxious animated film that you usually go to Pixar films to get away from. All of this brings us back to their latest film Brave – which while not a disaster like Cars 2, also does not reach the heights of most of Pixar’s best films.

The film takes place in Scotland sometime in the past. Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald) is a tomboy Princess, with bratty triplet young brothers, a gruff father Fergus (Billy Connolly) and a refined mother Elinor (Emma Thompson). Merida is tired of what she sees as Elinor trying to run her life. This comes to a boil when Elinor feels it is time for Merida to get married. They invite the three eldest sons of the clans beneath them to compete for her hand in marriage. But Merida has no interest in marrying them – or in anyone else for that matter. But refusing to take anyone as a husband may well result in a war between the clans. Frustrated, Merida takes off into the forest, where she comes across a witch – or gives her a way to change her fate by changing her mother’s mind – which of course ends up having consequences Merida cannot possibly foresee.

The above plot summary probably sounds more like a traditional Disney film, than something from Pixar. Yes, the two companies have been related ever since Pixar’s inception, but when at their best, Pixar tells stories that are completely outside the normal comfort zone for animated children’s fare. That is the real reason why Brave never quite reaches the heights of Pixar’s best films – the plot seems far too standard, too predictable, even a little clich├ęd. When I watched Ratatouille, Wall-E or even the Toy Story movies, I’m never quite where they’re going to end up. Yet at every stage of Brave, you know precisely where it’s going. Yet, Pixar does update the traditional Princess story – this Princess is no damsel in distress, and needs no handsome prince to come along and save her or complete her in anyway. And, unlike other recent feminist spins on classic fairy tales, she never does fall in love. And I did love the sensitivity and complexity that they used in painting in the relationship between mothers and daughters – a relationship that is not usually the central one in children’s movies. Still, the story of Brave seemed to play it too safe for it to be truly great.

The film is, as stated above, stunningly animated. If Brave is a step or two behind Pixar’s best films in terms of its story, it is the equal of their best films in terms of the animation. The details in every frame are meticulously, lovingly crafted. Merida’s long, curly read mop of hair is a thing of beauty in and of itself – with each strand of hair individually crafted. The massive castle where she lives with her family is a traditional animated castle, but still expertly crafted, with many dark nooks and crannies, and secrets. But the most impressive thing may be the forest, where most of the action takes place, which uses bold, beautiful colors (especially the bright greens). The 3-D is well handled, but like most Pixar films, completely unnecessary.

The only criticism that Pixar has consistently faced over the years is that all of their films have male leads. Perhaps that explains Brave – that it is a response to all those criticisms. But I think Pixar could have thought this out a little bit more – to make a female heroine as original as Wall-E or Remy the Rat. So yes, Brave is a little bit of a disappointment simply because it does not live up to the best that Pixar has done – that it doesn’t live up to the nearly impossibly high standards that have set for themselves. Yet, it still must be said the chances of seeing a better animated film this year are rare – the chances that you’ll find a more beautiful animated film this year practically nil. Brave is not as good as Pixar is capable of – but it’s still head and shoulders above most animated films we get in a given year.

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