– Summary –
Director : Mark Andrews & Brenda Chapman
Year Of Release : 2012
Principal Cast : Kelly Macdonald, Emma Thompson, Billy Connolly, Robbie Coltrane, Kevin McKidd, Craig Ferguson, Sally Kinghorn, Julie Walters, Steve Purcell.
Approx Running Time : 93 Minutes
Synopsis: A young Scottish princess rebels against her mothers wish to have her choose a suitable suitor for marriage from three fellow clans – the pair butt heads, inevitably leading to a clash of wills that will have consequences for them both.
What we think : Brave lacks the classic Pixar touch – it’s nowhere near as memorable as Monsters Inc or Toy Story, for example – but is an entertaining film in its own right. There’s a sense of unoriginal motivation within the framework of the narrative, and a couple of the plot points can be seen coming from a mile away (which is a sad day for Pixar, who’re usually so clever at this kind of thing) but as a film, it’s still exceptionally magnificent. No, it’ll lack the classic status of past Pixar alumni, and I doubt the re-watch factor is going to be as high as, say, Toy Story 3, but Brave rises above most of the dreck from Hollywood’s stable of stars to deliver a rousing, magical, often scary – and yet flawed – animated feature that just doesn’t quite cut it by comparison.
One might reasonably assume that the Golden Age of Pixar has now passed us by. Where previous feature films were trumpeted as Cinema Classics in their own right, almost always from the first frame, recent releases have met with a resounding “meh” from the vast majority of critics, most of whom seem wistful for the glory days when Toy Story 2 revolutionized animation and became a serious contender come Oscar time. If you look at Pixar from a purely fishbowl perspective, it was always going to happen that eventually, each yearly released film was never going to stack up against the four or five major releases which catapulted the studio to the top of the animation heap. Loving glances at my DVD copy of Finding Nemo aside, the studio seems to have been in a creative lull since Cars 2 – notably, the first sequel since Toy Story 2, and the first which really lacked punch with critics around the world – although if you compare even their most average features against the best of the rest, Pixar still remain a force to be reckoned with. We’ve come to expect a lot from Pixar, and no matter how they try and hold the gold standard for everyone else, inevitably they were bound to fall back to the pack eventually. So how does Brave, the first Pixar film to feature a female lead as the primary protagonist, fare as a stand-alone film, and up against its studio brethren?
In 1066 Scotland, a young princess, Merida (voice of Kelly Macdonald – most folks will recognize her as Mel Gibson’s “wife” in Braveheart, and as the object of Colin Firths affection – Evangeline – in Nanny McPhee) strives to remain an independent free spirit in the masculine clan she is born into. Her father, the king (voice of Billy Connolly) seems content to have his feisty daughter remain as free as a bird, but the Queen (Voice of Emma Thompson) seems to be pushing Merida to accept her status and choose a suitable candidate to marry. With Merida and the Queen butting heads over the matter, Merida takes matters into her own hands when she runs away to the forest, meets a witch (who, naturally, grants her a spell upon request) and decides to change her fate by changing her mother. Exactly how that change occurs, and how it is resolved, is the bulk of the story itself. Spoiler free, I always say.
There’s a pretty big plot twist midway through Brave which I will not spoil here. Suffice to say, it’s enough to warrant a decent giving up of some major narrative explanation in this review – although cursory readers would be best served knowing that the majority of the second half of the film revolves around bears, big, black, angry bears. Brave isn’t a film for really young children – my daughter, who is nearly four as you read this, is probably a year or so away from being of a mindset to watch this without having nightmares for a month – because it has plenty of realism when it comes to portraying the rage and strength of bears. The film opens with a bear attack, which, if you’re a parent throwing the young tots in front of this to keep them occupied (I mean, c’mon, it’s Pixar, right?), is probably your first mistake. The second would be to let them watch to the end, where a battle occurs with another of the enormous animals that contains plenty of older-children violence and thematic material, so keep that in mind when watching it, okay?
Brave’s central plot driver, the angst between a mother and her strong-willed daughter, will strike home to anyone who’s a parent (of either boy or girl, frankly), because it deals primarily with the teenage urge to rebel against the authority figure. For Merida, that figure is her mother, a woman who appears to have everything under control but, really, understands her daughter’s pain and anxiety more than she lets on. While the film is set in the early 9th century, it could very well have been filmed yesterday for all it says about human relationships down the ages. Brave’s core motivation is in bringing Merida and her mother together through a journey of self-discovery, a journey that goes nowhere any other similarly themed film has ever done, but one in which familiar tropes of animated film still abound. The themes of acceptance and rebelliousness aren’t new, and in a way I don’t think Pixar tried to hide them from us as new ideas, rather they accepted what they were dealing with and just went with it. Your acceptance of the film, and the story within it, will depend largely on your ability to withstand seeing the film as a mixture of a lot of other, previously essayed plot devices and story arcs.
Without divulging the plot, critically analyzing this film is difficult. The main plot twist is crucial to the story’s success, and although I don’t want to give it away, there’s a feeling of Brother Bear here that I just couldn’t shake. If you’ve seen Brother Bear, then you’ll appreciate the context in which I say that I just wished Pixar had done something different. Sure, it’s animated really well, but I was thinking of another film while watching this, and that just annoyed me. Merida’s relationship with her mother, the Queen, isn’t as strong as the filmmakers hoped it would be, either. Merida’s such a strong spirit, and such a headstrong personality, you can see the train-wreck her relationship with her mother is destined to become from a mile (and about twenty minutes of screen time) away. Sure enough, the script hits every archetypal mother/daughter rebelliousness note with a sledgehammer – not the typically subtle Pixar glockenspiel methodology, I’m sorry to say – and, I admit, the film’s lack of creativity in this department also found me getting slightly annoyed. Annoyed with the scripters for not coming up with something more…. I don’t know…. fresh. I just wish my wife and I hadn’t been able to pick what was going to happen twenty minutes before it actually did. Telegraphing plot points to the audience isn’t good when you’re not supposed to pick them out. That’s about all I can say, really.
Brave isn’t a revolutionary film from a story standpoint, nor is it really stepping outside the boundary ropes with its characterization (I think we saw similar secondary characters in How To Train Your Dragon, if I’m to be honest), but where the film truly shines is in its animation. Brave doesn’t just make your jaw drop with amazement in this department, it picks up your jaw and belts you around the head with it for good measure. Brave is astonishingly animated; as realism in film goes, I’ve not seen such a gorgeous, magnificently rendered, perfectly nuanced and gloriously colored film as this in many a long year. The brash red hair of Merida, the dark black of angry bear fur, the subtle blue hue of the whimsical will-o-the-wisps, the deft ear-prick of Merida’s horse, Angus: not one part of the films visual palette is flawed, nor is it lesser than anything around it. I’d say Brave is visual perfection, even if it forgoes storytelling bravery to achieve it.
Taking into account some dubious story decisions, and even taking into account some blatant stealing of characters from other films (the witch in Brave reminds me of the voodoo priestess, Madame Odie, in The Princess And The Frog, while Merida’s horse, Angus, is a rougher, less angular approximation of Maximus from Tangled), Brave offers a lot for those prepared to accept second-best from Pixar. The action sequences are well constructed and beautiful to look at, while there’s a sense of humor here so obviously Scottish that often, you’ll miss something while laughing at a line of dialogue or a pratfall from several secondary characters. Merida’s brothers, three impish triplets who seem to be born of Satan himself for all the mischief they cause, are a key comic relief, although their use is perfunctory and lacking in a solid resolution. The three lords of the other clans, voiced by Kevin McKidd, Craig Ferguson (who seems to have taken a fancy to voicing animated fare after his work on How To Train Your Dragon and Winnie The Pooh) and Robbie Coltrane, are near unrecognizable – perhaps that’s a good thing, lest a moment of “hey, I know that voice” further rob Brave of any kind of drawing-in of the viewer – while Billy Connolly seems to have slummed it a bit with his performance as Merida’s father. Either that, or he’s not given enough material to really bring the character to life. It all feels somewhat… manufactured, to a degree, at least in ways that Toy Story 2 doesn’t, which is telling.
If you’re going to (unfairly) compare Brave against the best Pixar has to offer, it’s easily one of the lesser films in its canon. I think there were better stories they could have told with these characters (and had they not stolen flagrantly from Brother Bear, I’d have been a lot happier) and although the film looks amazing, it’s not one I’m going to sit around watching three hundred times with my kids in years to come. The story, the characters and the secondary moments within the film lack the polish of Pixar’s best work, perhaps ushering in a leveling of the playing field once so dominated by this studio you get scared looking at the Oscars they’ve snagged along the way: could it be that Pixar has finally fallen back to the rest of the pack – a pack containing the likes of Blue Sky and Dreamworks, both of whom are now putting out some solid fare even at the worst of times? While I’m loathe to write Pixar off as becoming just another production-line animation studio, it’s increasingly looking like that’s exactly what’s happened. Sadly, the Golden Age of Pixar is behind us; although settling for mediocre Pixar seems anathema to every film fan, perhaps even that is still slightly better than some of the other mediocrity to come from the Hollywood studios.
Look, I hate to be ragging on Brave as much as I have, because there were actually a few moments when the film transcended the mediocre story and the obvious characters and became a real adventure into animation. But you can feel the cogs at work, you can sense the lack of magic in each frame where story is supposed to make invisible the visible wires (if you’ll pardon my mixing of puppetry with computer animation as an analogy) and the film just seems to be constantly exhaling to get your attention. There’s no one light-bulb moment here, no Incredible’s “wow!”, no Toy Story 2 magnificence where the story supplants even the best animation money can buy – a sidebar: you go re-watch Toy Story 2, and even for a film over a decade old, the animation still holds up even now! – leaving Brave to remain another “almost got it” effort in the gradual decline of Pixar’s seemingly hit-and-miss current oeuvre. Brave is gloriously animated, sure, but lacks a fresh truth at its heart.