Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Pixar's Brave Movie Review

Feature animation princess stories have long been the purview of Disney films. Those of us who are weary of the wholesome inoffensive entertainments they have created over the years had Pixar to turn to starting in the mid 90s. Not that Pixar’s films have been so subversive, but their consistently creative writing staff has at least attempted to honestly provide stories that can be enjoyed by children and adults alike. Their latest effort, Brave, feels more like a Disney animated film than any of Pixar’s previous 12 feature films.

In the story of a princess in Scotland sometime around the tenth century, the studio departs from the standard custom of using anthropomorphized objects, monsters, fish and vehicles as the central characters. Merida (voiced by Kelly MacDonald) is a teenage princess whose disdain for following her mother’s instructions for what a princess ought and ought not to do is surpassed only by her fondness for archery. Emma Thompson is one of the few non-Scots to voice a main character, but her accent is convincing enough as Elinor, the Queen who only wants the best for her daughter. Unfortunately, as most parents know, the gap between what a mother wants for her child and what the child wants for herself is too often a gulf of fantastic depth. Merida’s father, Fergus (Billy Connolly) is more understanding of Merida’s extra-curricular activities and hobbies.

Like many sons and daughters, princes and princesses before her, Merida is not pleased with what is traditionally expected of her. Elinor pushes her emphatically toward a betrothal with one of the first born sons of the leaders of the other three clans, all of whom come to boast their prowess and compete for Merida’s hand. Running away during the proceedings, Merida happens upon a witch in the woods who, in addition to making elaborate wood carvings, specializes in spells. So for a small price, she casts a spell to change Merida’s mom. The witch conveniently leaves out the part that she will change into a bear.

Advancements in computer animation notwithstanding, the limitations of the technology still come through in renderings of humans. Really there are only two ways to go on this front that work to any degree: there’s the uncanny valley effect or films like Final Fantasy; or the cartoonish caricatures that Pixar has always used for people. Fergus is a wondrous creature to behold. He’s a giant bear of a man (bears being an essential theme throughout Brave), with impossibly broad shoulders and a mid-section the size of a Buick. Elinor has a few aging lines etched into her face, but Merida has a Plain Jane complexion with no character built in. It looks like all the effort in her animation was put into her beautifully ebullient flowing red hair. What truly catches the eye most is the scenery. This has been Pixar’s greatest achievement in many of their recent films. Forests and grassy hillsides shine with bright colors and natural movement. In many cases the landscapes are almost photorealistic.

Brave was directed by Brenda Chapman and Mark Andrews, and written by them along with Steve Purcell and Irene Mecchi, all of whom bring a great deal of animation experience to the table. The film bears more resemblance to classic Disney fare than anything in Pixar’s previous releases. It’s riddled with goofy sight gags and jokes that are not on a par with the humor that has set their work apart from other children’s films. I have come to expect classic kids fare from Pixar elevated by an astute sense that there has to be something for the adults in the audience. That’s the part that felt not entirely absent, but certainly spare.

However, it truly departs from the Disney model in one important aspect: Merida is not entirely a traditional Disney princess. Unlike Snow White, Cinderella, and Ariel, who are defined by their search for a Prince, Merida defines herself through her independence and her expertise with a bow. Brave is a film that issues a challenge to traditional gender roles, especially those laid out by films like Cinderella and The Little Mermaid. Brave even takes it a step further when Elinor becomes a bear and is forced to confront her inner animal instincts that stand in contrast to the refined exterior she has molded for herself.

What is missing more than anything else for me is the thing Pixar has always excelled at, which is the idea that the protagonist must overcome some personal shortcoming or character flaw to achieve his goal. Whether it’s Woody and his adherence to tradition, Buzz Lightyear’s self-importance, Carl Frederickson’s cantankerous personality, or Lightning McQueen’s self-involvement, the stories have always been about that journey. Merida does not have enough of a personal journey laid out for her because, apart from not understanding or respecting her mother’s point of view, she doesn’t have far to travel.

Most audience members are likely to see that Elinor is the character most in need of a change, but she is a secondary character. So the hero’s journey is insufficient to sustain a full length story in this case. Brave is fun to watch once and pretty to look at, but I don’t see that it has enough to warrant repeated viewings, a failing I’ve not found in any Pixar feature film to date.

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