Thursday, June 28, 2012

Home of the Brave

As many of you know, I've finally thrown myself into the richly-detailed world of animated movies. I'd long considered the genre to be kiddie fare, only to realize of late that the BEST animated films can appeal to smart adults as well as their progeny. In the past year I've seen such great titles on the big screen, from Gore Verbinski's Rango to Aardman's Arthur Christmas and even The Adventures of Tintin, which was Steven Spielberg's best film in years. Monday marked a huge milestone for me however, bigger perhaps than actually witnessing what I considered to be the best film of 2011 (The Artist) win the Best Picture Oscar: I finally took a chance to see a Pixar film on the big screen. After catching and thoroughly enjoying classics like Toy Story, The Incredibles, Up and Wall-E in years long past their theatrical runs, Brave represents just the second time I've taken to see a title from the animation studio juggernaut in over a decade, since 2001's Monsters Inc.  

Brave certainly has a lot to live up to. In its history, Pixar has created not just some of the best animated films of all time, but indeed some of the most iconic MOVIES of the modern era. Sure, the film had its growing pains; original director Brenda Jackson, who had conceived and done much of the work on Brave and in fact based much of the story on her relationship with her daughter, was released by Pixar and parent company Disney for "creative differences." However, this is hardly an unprecedented occurrence. Jan Pinkava was released while making 2007's Ratatouille, and Toy Story 2 underwent a large number of controversies in production, stemming from differing opinions between Pixar and Disney. Both today are considered great films, with Toy Story 2 holding the domestic box office record for Pixar films until Toy Story 3 came out in 2010. So I don't worry if Chapman's dismissal clouds your hopes and expectations for Brave, as this is simply business as usual. As for the movie itself...

Stay in your seats; Mr. Anderson is about to tell a story.
In the wilds of what is ancient Scotland, four major clans come together in the spirit of tradition. The three lesser groups journey to the castle of King Fergus (Billy Connolly) of Clan DunBroch to present their first-born sons, in the hopes of currying favor and marrying their son to his daughter, Princess Merida (Kelly Macdonald). But Merida, despite the constant training and education by her mother Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson) in the ways of being a lady and a princess, has other ideas. A tomboy and fiercely independent, happier with a strong sword than a pretty dress, Merida defies tradition and strikes out on her own, hoping to find a way to change her fate. But when she finally gets her wish, it is like nothing she could have expected or wanted. Now, with war looming on the horizon, it may take everything she has to save both her waylaid fate and her father's kingdom.

"Go ahead, punk. Make my day."
If Brave feels somewhat familiar, it's because this film is Pixar's first attempt at a fairy tale, long a staple of the Disney machine. In fact, you could easily draw parallels to Disney's last animated adventure, Tangled, though that was almost more of a parody of a fairy tale than an actual retelling of the Rapunzel story. Brave's story is an original one, woven with magic, swords and arrows, curses and monsters. Still, the main reason you'll love Brave is the character of Merida, which is a good thing since the film rarely takes a break from following the determined teenager. The perfectly-built character exudes a lot of Game of Thrones' Arya Stark; strong-willed, she rejects the gentler demands of being a) a girl and b) a princess. As a character she's closer to her warrior father, who is gruff and strong, than her more delicate and intelligent mother. Kelly Macdonald's voice is perfect in creating Merida's mixture of enthusiasm and relative naivete, and while she is not really as multi-dimensional a character as you hope she'd be, she is more than enough to carry a film of this degree.

They're not the Addams Family, but they'll do.
I was also a huge fan of Emma Thompson as Queen Elinor. As the film is primarily about the relationship between Merida and Elinor, it's nice to see that Elinor is just simply her mother. She's not an evil, child-hating, Munchausen syndrome-suffering, supernaturally beautiful (or conversely, hideously deformed) step-mother, but just a plain old Mom, like yours or mine. She loves her children, wants what's best for them, and there is no malice in any single one of her actions. Yes, Elinor's overbearing nature and natural adherence to tradition is partly what sets this whole mess off, but it's refreshing for once to have a strong woman who is in fact being strong-willed and intelligent in her stance and not just being an obstinate bitch, which is what usually happens in Hollywood flicks.

Left to right; Moe, Larry and Curly.
The rest of the characters are no slouches, and while Billy Connelly slays as Merida's father King Fergus, and strong voices are offered by Julie Walters, Kevin McKidd, Robbie Coltrane and Craig Ferguson, I often found the best roles in the film were played without a single sound. Chief among these are Merida's younger triplet brothers, who steal every scene with their mischevious antics. They make for a nice change from the dramatic story, though they are far from alone in that distinction. Coltrane's Lord Dingwalf has a silent partner of his own, a brutally strong warrior who doesn't speak a word, not because he can't, but because through even limited actions he doesn't have to. Even Merida's horse Angus has personality to spare, and the animation is so strong that Angus can look not like a cartoonish variant of a horse but the real deal, and still emote more than some big-time live actors.

Would you look at that... her hair is INCREDIBLE.
It's that attention to detail that makes Brave, like every Pixar film before it, absolutely gorgeous to behold. It's not just the lusciously-flowing locks of Merida that are deserving of your attentions, but also the great and bountiful vistas, which do a wonderful job of setting the stage for the story to come. This studio is no stranger to visual wonder - check out any of their films in the past decade and marvel at their accomplishments. With computers as complex as they are now, you have to wonder how images such as these will be rendered a decade from now, and in what detail. It's a shame though that Brave's visual opulence must make up for a cliched and simplistic story, one that doesn't quite pull as elegantly at your heartstrings as the best Pixar has had to offer. Perhaps this is why the studio wanted Chapman off the project, after similar fairy tales had failed to impress at the box office. I didn't think things were TOO bad, but I'm only seeing the final product, not what was there before.

These boots are made for walkin'...
That isn't to say that Brave is all beauty and no brains, just that it turns out to be SLIGHTLY more beauty than brains. It carries easily the weakest story Pixar has thrown out in a long time (I haven't seen either Cars films, so I'm not counting them) and while Brave is STILL the #4 movie of 2012, its final landing spot is disappointing in that I was sure it would be competing for #1. Brave remains a gorgeous, tender, and at times expertly told story, but on very rare occasions it manages to dredge up the absolute worst aspects of the Disney Princess genre. It's a small quibble, and doesn't detract from the enjoyability of the final product. But when one has been weaned on purified excellence, you can't help but feel let down when one great instance fails to live up to all the wonder you have previously beheld..

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