Directed by Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman
Starring: Kelly Macdonald, Emma Thompson, and Billy Connolly
MPAA: PG - For Some Scary Action and Rude Humor]
The trouble with being Pixar as that everyone expects everything you make to be some sort of mind-altering masterpiece of epic proportions. And while Pixar is one of the few artists in the film industry that's deserving of that expectation, it's still rather unfair. Because of this, unless you're some sort of God-like being who poops chocolate and cures world hunger with your rich excrement, the second you make a film that is "very good' but not "OH MY GOD AMAZING", the very people that have revered you for so long can turn on your in an instant. And while people like to consider the Cars franchise as just some sort of side-thing that Pixar does for Disney in order to sell lots of toys, people expect anything that isn't related to that particular portion of Pixar's pedigree to be as incredibly funny as Monster's Inc., as heart-breakingly moving as Up, and as beautifully poignant as WALL-E.
So if I said that Pixar's latest movie, Brave is a very good family film with a simple but very well-executed story, there will be a certain group of people who will be disappointed that it "didn't make anybody cry like the end of Toy Story 3" or something equally ridiculous. I normally dislike talking about other people's reactions to a movie (After all, this is supposed to be MY review), but it must be said: If you're going to judge a movie, judge it on its own merits and its own flaws. Don't base your judgement on the merits of previous movies. By that logic, John Carpenter's They Live sucks because it wasn't as good as Halloween or The Thing. That doesn't make They Live bad at all; in fact, They Live is really damn good. It's just that They Live wasn't going for the same thing that The Thing was going for...
So yeah, proceeding to the actual review: Brave is Pixar's first foray into many different things: The fantasy genre, the Disney Princess pedigree, and it also counts as the first film of there's to have a female protagonist. It follows the story of Merida (Voice of Kelly Macdonald) growing up as the princess of an ancient Scottish Kingdom. Now tell me if this sounds familiar: She's a princess, but she doesn't necessarily want to be a princess if you get what I mean. Rather than being interested in dresses and manners, she's more into archery, exploring, and adventuring in her free time. Of course her mother, the Queen (Voice of Emma Thompson), would rather she be into dresses and manners, so she calls out for the princes of the other kingdoms to vie for her hand in marriage to bring Merida closer to her position. As it turns out, it only further isolates her, causing her to lash out and run away so she can find a way to "change her fate" so she can be free from the domineering presence of her mother.
Will Merida ever find a way to reconcile with her mother? Will she ever learn to realize that it was she that was actually there for her all along? And most importantly, will she discover that the greatest strength one can have is not a sword but a family?
If this sounds overly trite, familiar, and predictable, I forgive you for dismissing the film upfront. But when I say that the film is still pretty darn impressive despite these familiar elements, it should serve as a testament to how talented the Pixar team really is. While it definitely feels less like pure Pixar, and more like Pixar's take on a Disney film, the magic is still there and nothing about it feels cynical, or overly nostalgic. It's just a simple story, but about as well-told as it can possibly be.
Of course, I can't seem to explain why it is that makes it stand above other recent films that tried to ape the Disney formula. It's one of those things where I honestly feel comfortable just saying "Well, that's just how Pixar does it". If I could come up with one reason, however, it's that it feels kind of like a personal story. When you're dealing with the domineering mother vs. the misunderstood daughter trope, it's so overdone that there's absolutely no way for it to register to anyone except the kinds of kids who are whining about their own domineering mothers. But there's something genuine about the mother-daughter relationship in Brave. The "dialogue" between them (Those of you who've seen the film will get why I put "dialogue" in quotations) is very well-done and all the more honest because of the way it conveys the relationship visually rather than just with words.
Another factor that shows that Pixar actually gets the Disney formula rather than just cynically rips it off, is that it understands a fundamental lesson that most people refuse to learn from Disney: His movies were sometimes completely, utterly terrifying. While I wouldn't call Brave terrifying the same way I'd discuss how traumatized I was by Pinocchio, there are some moments that are surprisingly suspenseful, exciting, and thrilling. While it isn't done too much to overwhelm the largely family-oriented audience, the sense of danger is there enough to keep the stakes in check.
If there's a major flaw with the film, it's the humor. Okay, let me rephrase that: If there's a major flaw with the film, it's the placement of the humor. Pixar is without a doubt unmatched when it comes to animated slapstick, and Brave is definitely really funny when it needs to be. However, there were a few moments where the humor was intrusive and forced, even if it was still acknowledge-ably funny. Going into further details on these scenes would lead to spoilers (Pleasant surprise: The trailers and marketing didn't reveal a big plot-twist near the beginning of the movie), but let's just say that there's a visual joke involving cleavage in one scene (Don't worry it's handled as tastefully as it possibly could) and immediately after that we cut back to a chase scene with serious stakes. It's not that it isn't "funny", because it is, it's just placed in the wrong moments from time to time and leads to a sometimes schizophrenic tone.
The other flaw that comes to mind is that while the relationship between Merida and her mother is handled nicely, the side character aren't given much to do. I get that it isn't particularly "their story", but there was potential in some of the other characters to be fleshed out and more nuanced. Particularly in the character of Merida's father a.k.a. the King (Voice of Billy Connolly), who (given circumstances that I can not spoil) goes through a lot of hefty moments, but isn't given enough screen time for it to register.
Thankfully, the movie ends on a very strong note. Pixar is one of the few makers of family film that seems to understand that characters are just as important as visual dazzle, and the action climax at the end is secondary to the emotional climax spurred by the mother-daughter relationship. While it didn't move me to tears like Up or Toy Story 3 did, it definitely left me and a theater full of kids and adults alike very dusty. Because while we definitely see the ending coming, and it is filled with all those familiar elements, Pixar just has this "magic" to them that seems to do the trick every time.
Final Verdict: Brave is a flawed but remarkable film. Their visuals are stronger than ever, and the character relationships are handled to a tee. Despite a few gripes with tone consistency and some underdeveloped characters, there's no denying Pixar's talent still in full display on the picture. Not a masterpiece, but it's likely going to be the best animated film of this year and pretty much the only sure-fire good movie that's out this weekend.
That is all. If you liked this review and would like to read more, you can do so by reading more from this blog as well as following me on the Twitter-machine @CGRunyon to hear more of my general ramblings on film, video games, and other such things. By following me, you not only get an endless stream of updates on what's going on with my articles, you get to stroke my massive ego in the process. Do at your own risk.
See ya next time. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to practice my archery. It's in everything, these days! Bye!