Friday, June 29, 2012

BRAVE: Can Pixar Stay On-Target?

BRAVE Review:

- Brave has inevitably been discussed in terms of its place in the Pixar pantheon, and, given the knack for quality that Pixar has displayed over the years, that comparison to the company's previous efforts is likely inevitable. On the surface, Brave doesn't set off any warning signals to the naysayers who fear Pixar's track-record is at risk. It's not a sequel, it's not a cynical-feeling film. In fact, Brave had been touted as all sorts of things: the first Pixar film with a female lead, a feel-good film about empowerment, a bold, original vision. Oddly, while Brave has many good, and many Pixar-ish qualities, it also felt like the least Pixar-y Pixar film to date. In fact, its princess-in-peril storyline is more classic Disney than anything else. And the very traditional, fairy-tale esque story makes Brave a little more kiddie, a little less thematically-sophisticated, than the likes of Wall-E, Cars, or Ratatouille. Maybe it's unfair that we've come to expect Pixar films to be equally-appealling to adults and kids alike. But regardless, the level of storytelling and depth here simply doesn't hit the best-in-class level that I expected.

Set in a vaguely medieval Scottish kingdom, BRAVE tells the story of teenage princess Merida, who hates the rigidly-structured and thoroughly predetermined life that her station entails. Merida is a free spirit. She'd much rather be off exploring the woods, caves, and waterfalls of her kingdom, and practing her archery skills, than attending ceremonies and royal functions. So Merida is especially beside herself with anger when her parents inform her that it's time for her to start thinking about marriage. Specifically, they've arranged an event during which princes from three neighboring kingdoms will compete in various physical challenges in order to win Merida's hand. The uniting of kingdoms is politically a big deal, and so there's added pressure for Merida to get married - not just as a way of fully entering into womanhood, but also as a means of solidifying political alliances.

The fundamental problem here is that Brave sets up a pretty intriguing main character in Merida - who has the potential to be a fun and pretty kickass leading lady - but then, very quickly, the film devolves from more realistic, epic-seeming adventure to dumbed-down Disney stuff. Point being: Brave sets up Merida as an epic hero, but then places her in a story that's decidely less-than-epic. Without spoiling too much, Merida's reluctance to pick a suitor for marriage leads her into an angry conflict with her well-meaning but backwards-thinking mother. Merida storms off and, in the dark forest, is led by ghostly will-o-wisps to the cottage of an old witch. In classic fairytale fashion, Merida asks the witch for a spell that will change her mother. But of course, the spell doesn't work as Merida assumed it would, and suddenly, Merida finds herself in the midst of a very ugly mess of her own making - a mess that could put her, her mother, and the kingdom in jeopardy.

Again, without spoiling ... the somewhat silly results of the witch's spell never seem to gel with the more sweeping, lyrical tone established at the movie's outset. And I'll admit, given the relative lack of story info in the movie's marketing / trailers, I found myself pretty surprised and somewhat disappointed with the direction the plotline took. Brave turns out not to be an epic adventure movie as hinted at, but instead a coming-of-age romp with all sorts of cartoonish shenanigans driving its main plot - mistaken identity, magical hijinks, and many a moment of "seriously, you guys, this is all one big misunderstanding!".

Now, I sort of see what the movie is going for in its second act. It reverses the roles of Merida and her queen mother, putting them into a situation where the Queen's regal, proper manner is rendered useless, and Merida's survival skills, adventurous spirit, bravery, and quick-thinking are what keeps them safe. But this segment of the film sort of drags, and without a truly great villain or source of conflict, the characters seem to meander. Sure, the fearsome bear Mord'u - the monstrous beast that long ago took the leg of Merida's father - lurks in the shadows, threatening to strike. And I give the movie credit - some of the scenes with Mord'u are really exhillerating, dark, and intense. But the movie's mythology is too sketchy to give the bear - or many other elements of the film's backstory - the weight they need to really resonate.

To that end, I was surprised at how relatively one-note a lot of the characters in Brave turned out to be. Like I said, Merida has all the elements to be a great new character (even if the free-spirited female archer thing now seems a bit played out post-Hunger Games). But to me, the number-one most important relationship in the film was the one between Merida and her mother Elinor, the queen. But Elinor felt flat as a character. Some shred of backstory might have helped us understand her, but as presented she's just the typical stern-mom-with-a-stick-up-her-bum. To be honest, the movie tries for something very, very tricky. Because the way it's set up, Merida is presented as the rebellious teen who needs to learn a lesson in responsibility and growing up. But, the twist here is ... even though Merida acts out and rebels, she's also basically right about everything she says. She's rebellious, but in a way that makes her seem - to us, the modern audience - less like an obnoxious teen and more like a perfectly-in-the-right modern, empowered woman fighting against an oppressive society that treats objects like women, man (sorry, obligatory Big Lebowski reference). But what I'm getting at is: the movie makes it very difficult to know who to root for. We root for Merida, of course, but the movie's structure keeps making it seem like Merida's the one who needs to learn a lesson, not her mom. Afterall, Merida is the one who ran off and made a deal-with-the-devil and ended up endangering her family in the process. And yet, anyone with an ounce of liberalism in their veins will hate Elinor and sort of hope she gets what's coming - it is she, afterall, who's keeping her daughter from being all-she-can-be.

And that's the weird thing about BRAVE that left me with mixed emotions. On the surface, it's got a positive message for young girls - you can be whatever you want, you can be kickass, you can be brave, and a hero, and don't have to conform to outdated gender roles. All of that is great, and I support it 100%. But Brave presents this message awkwardly. Like I said, Merida is both a fight-the-power feminist and sort of a punk teen. We're never quite sure how much of her behavior is true equal-rights liberalism and how much is just brattiness. What's more, the movie's girl-power message is pretty on-the-nose. It's so spelled out, that it almost feels outdated. Like, it's 2012, shouldn't an animated kids' movie now just, you know, take it for granted that a girl can kick ass and be smart and tough and independent? I don't remember, say, Hunger Games sermonizing about how Katniss could be a badass despite being a girl - she just was. You know? Now sure, I recognize that a.) Brave is aimed at younger kids, and b.) it's set vaguely in the past, at a time when presumably women had less independence (though *that* is never really spelled out). Still, the message of the movie, to me, was delivered in a somewhat awkward, and maybe even outdated fashion.

All that said, BRAVE is a gorgeous film. The Scottish highlands and landscapes are breathtaking to behold, and the quality of the backdrops is incredible. Similarly, the character animaiton is wonderful - full of life and personality, and ultra-expressive. From a purely aesthetic standpoint, I loved the look and feel of Brave. When it wants to be dark and scary (i.e. the parts with Mord'u), it oozes spookiness and shadow. When it wants to make us feel like we're there with Merida, exploring caves and waterfalls, the camera pulls back and sweeps us away in almost overpoweringly epic fashion. And when the film first introduces the ghostly blue will-o-wisps, the effect is understated yet haunting. As Merida follows the trail of wisps, each evaporating as she passes, there's an immersiveness to the action that was positively Nintendo-esque in its whimsical sense of discovery, mystery, and wonder. I also loved the very-Scottish soundtrack, thunderously boistrous at times and hautingly low-key at others. Again, Brave is quite simply an audio-visual marvel.

I also really loved the voice-cast. I've beocme a big fan of Kelly MacDonald from Boardwalk Empire, and she is fantastic as Merida. Emma Thompson is quite good as Elinor, and Billy Connelly is a hoot as the loud, mirth-making, revenge-seeking King Fergus. There are a number of other Scotts in the mix as well - Craig Ferguson, Kevin McKidd ... if only some of the other supporting characters really jumped out. As it is, the suitors and their families are all sort of one-joke characters. There's the nerdy suitor, the douchebag suitor, and the weird suitor who talks in an unintelligible mumble. None really gets a great moment to shine or to develop or change. But look, Kelly MacDonald is the star here, and no complaints about her great and memorable turn in the lead role.

BRAVE had a lot of fun moments. And at times - as in the harrowing final confrontation with Mord'u - it was downright riveting. But it just didn't wow me as I hoped and expected it might. A big part of that is that Pixar films tend to be seamlessly-realized animated universes. Characters, aesthetics, and narratives super-integrated to tell a very specific story in a very specific way - a way that tends to work on multiple levels for kids and for adults. Brave seems like more of a mash-up. Elements of classic Disney-style fairytales, elements of Pixar's more progressive aesthetics and thematics. In that way, it doesn't feel as visionairy, thematically cohesive, or as impactful as Pixar's best, and it also lacks the pure magic and sense of wonder of the timeless Disney animated films. There's a lot to admire in BRAVE, but it feels like a well-intentioned, yet flawed film from Pixar - perhaps the closest they've come to a misfire in a long while.

My Grade: B

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