In some ways, Pixar has it harder than other modern movie studios. There’s more pressure in maintaining a reputation of producing one classic after another, as datum in subsequent years from their first film, Toy Story, in 1995, until their third to last, Toy Story 3, in 2010. 2 of the 3 animated movies that cashed Best Picture nominations were Pixar films- as more probably would have been had the category been expanded before 2009. Their reviews are spectacular, most being the best reviewed of their year (Toy Story and Toy Story 2 both being better reviewed than any other animated movie on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, with 100% each).
They are loved unanimously among the mainstream, Toy Story 3 the highest grossing animated movie of all time and none of the others dipping below $300 million worldwide. All of their films leading up to 2010 were monster hits, each better than the last. Never before had Hollywood been so agreeable. Thanks to Pixar, dignity had been restored to the name of animated films, and it wouldn’t have been a decade before one scored the top prize at the Oscars- and surely it would have been Pixar.
But then 2011 hit and Cars 2 came out- Cars was always at the bottom of the pack when it came to critical acclaim, the only Pixar film not to win a Best Animated Feature Oscar after the category had been established. But its reviews were still exceptional for an animated film and it was Pixar’s most successful film among young children and therefore skyrocketed in merchandising. To the marketers down at Disney, a sequel made sense. But it failed in reviews and among audiences, not seeing any light come award season. But it wouldn’t be the death of Pixar, right? All studios have their bad days. Which is fine, but that’s not what we had been led to be expected of Pixar. They still had Brave next year, we thought.
They still had Brave.
This wherein the industry holds a collective breath, possibly more weighing on this film than any other movie this year. Brave is only Pixar’s third movie with a cast made entirely of human characters, The Incredibles and Up preceding it. It’s also Pixar’s first movie with a female lead, after Disney itself has crowned ten princesses. With these new complexities added to the result of this film, we ask- does it live up?
Brave chronicles Merida (Kelly MacDonald), a princess living in the Scottish kingdom of DunBroch. She’s the impetuous, horse-riding archer daughter of King Fergus (Bill Connolly) and Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson). As a teenager, she naturally ignores her mother’s control over her, preparing her for life as a queen, for a life of tradition. Merida wants her freedom, refusing her suitors and publicly declaring her desire for her own hand- moments before blowing away her suitors in archery.
Merida and her mother have an explosive argument, resulting in her mother throwing Merida’s bow in the fire and Merida ripping her mother’s family tapestry. Merida runs away and follows the blue fate lights in search of a way to change her fate.
I’m going to stop the synopsis here because I don’t want to reveal a spoiler. It’s not one that’s particularly big, but marketing did such a great job of covering it up that it would be a shame to ruin it for you now. That aside, I was admittedly a tad disappointed in Brave- perhaps since I hold a higher standard for the fantasy genre (and Pixar in general) that I was letdown. From the trailers and posters, I expected a billowing, sweeping fantasy epic to be the animated embodiment of Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter, when the film only brushed on the edges of what should have been a complex cinematic world. Only 20 minutes in all focus on the expansive forest and landscapes of the kingdom, when most of the film takes place mostly on the grounds of the castle itself.
The story was equally lacking in scope, deficient of the multi-dimension and sophistication of The Incredibles and Toy Story. I felt teased throughout, but with fairness to Pixar, they’re exploring a story they’re comfortable with in a setting that’s completely new. This brings up another point- I’m all for feminist undertones, but Merida’s a bit of an original character- rebellious princesses are all the rage these days and she brings nothing new to the ‘my mother only wants me to get married’ dashed with a typical ‘I want my freedom’. It’s a typical story, one that lacked the adventure that marketing hinted at, so in that way I’m largely dissatisfied.
That said, Brave is still a good movie. Not up to what we’ve come to expect from Pixar but good. I was expecting a retrospective fantasy adventure but was met instead with a sweet, if disillusioning, mother-daughter story at the film’s center. The comedy is mainly slapstick but some spots occasionally shine with Pixar’s signature heartfelt touches- the scenes which show Merida as a child with her mother are heartwarming and heartbreaking all at once.
The opening sequence is perfection, which is probably why the film’s downslope from there is mildly disconcerting. The film held my attention, Merida’s younger brothers amusing characters if ones better expected from DreamWorks. There’s a scene where the boys and their mother share the same fate, shall we say, that caused the audience in my theater to burst out laughing.
The visuals are spectacular. It’s some of the best I have ever seen in an animated film, although regrettably darkened by a 3D that adds nothing at all. Merida’s hair is a work of art on its own. It took two teams and several months to get her hair working, and the effect is mesmerizing- that alone pays off for Pixar’s first female lead. The tidbits of the land that we do get to see are phenomenal, especially at the end, where the sun rises over the pillars on the outskirts of the kingdom. The landscapes are breathtaking, the scene near the beginning where Merida climbs a mountain by the waterfall lush and vibrant. Pixar’s use of textures and tones are exquisite, the lighting of the sun and moon carefully lit to portray the mood. Pixar succeeds in that their animation isn’t a handicap, but a visual palette.
Patrick Doyle’s score boasts a living, breathing Scottish undercurrent, elaborate in its composition but classic in a way that parallels the frenetic fantasy sequences that
emerge throughout the film. Kelly MacDonald and Emma Thompson make this an audial treat as well, MacDonald perfect as the vivacious, freedom-longing Merida, her accent perfectly laced with timeless teenage desperation. Thompson is equally skilled as Queen Elinor, demanding the audience’s attention while still maintaining the decorum of a lady.
It doesn’t meet the colossal standards set by Pixar or even those of the fantasy genre, but Brave is a feat to be admired in its ambition alone, succeeding in its heart and Pixar’s usual technical virtuosity – with a few twists along the way to keep the audience compelled.