22 June 2012

THE BEAR AND THE BOW

Poor Brave. It could have survived, and thrived, as just an animated family-friendly adventure movie. Instead, it has to be a Pixar movie, and not just a Pixar movie, but the Pixar movie that had to come out right after Cars 2 and prove one of two things, according to your tastes: either that Pixar had regained its footing after one and only one (but one extremely massive) artistic stumble, or that Pixar has officially settled into its role as a more technically accomplished marketing department for the Walt Disney Company to sell toys. Thus it it has gotten stuck in the one place that "awfully nice and deeply felt and extravagantly damn pretty but also a bit simplistic and certainly not a medium-defining masterpiece" could not survive being stuck, and so we've arrived at a place where nobody can bring themselves to simply talk about the film on its own terms, but only as a moment for reflection on the state of a studio that was, in very recent memory, the most reliable brand name in the modern history of Hollywood. And, heck, if I were all that concerned about this trend, surely I would have started my own review any other way. At the very least, this much has to be said, and said loudly: there is absolutely no excuse for considering Brave to be predictable or redundant or a sign of creative failure at a time when Madagascar 3 has opened to generally positive reviews.

The film was conceived by Brenda Chapman some years ago as an attempt to work out her feelings about motherhood, making this the first female-centric Pixar film not just in that it has a girl protagonist (which is, undeniably, an important first), but in that its themes and perspectives are somewhat more feminine than the rip-roaring boy's own adventures that have made up the bulk of the studio's output to this point, and also, depending on how you want to parse out a very knotty production history, it's the first Pixar film to have a woman share directorial duties, though the truth of this matter is hidden beneath some very defensive official credits: Mark Andrews and Chapman each get their own separate "directed by" card, with Steve Purcell receiving one of those "co-director" credits Pixar is so fond of that I've never entirely understood. And the screenplay is credited to Andrews, Purcell, Chapman and Irene Mecchi, in exactly that order with exactly those commas. So whatever the hell happened (Chapman was at one point said to have been taken off the project entirely owing to all-encompassing "creative differences", which many of us supposed to mean that Pixar is still something of a boys' club), Brave is not necessarily a movie that, in its current state, has a single artistic vision backing it up, and this might be all the reason that it can't muster itself up to the studio's top tier, quality-wise. For there is, alas, no denying that the movie takes an awfully long time finding a tone that it wants to stick with, and so we have broad physical comedy matched with winsome, sugary sentiment and vigorous swashbuckling, with all of it playing against the backdrop of fantastic mythic adventure, and the marriage of all these different modes is nowhere remotely near as effortless as the comic/tragic slurry of Toy Story 3 or the adventure/domestic drama of Up, for example.

That said, Brave is still very much about one thing, and that thing is still the central concept that Chapman first had in mind: the difficulties of a mother-daughter relationship. Not a subject that gets much airtime in American cinema, to say nothing of American cartoons for the broadest possible audience. The film takes place in Scotland sometime in the early Middle Ages, though it pointedly doesn't make precise dating possible (references to viking raids suggest the 8th or 9th Century, the inevitably omnipresent kilts would make it the 16th), where several local clans have been united under the throne of King Fergus (Billy Connolly, almost as inevitable as the kilts). At this time, the king's daughter, Merida (Kelly Macdonald) is just about at the right age to be married off, and Fergus and his domineering wife Elinor (Emma Thompson, stealing the whole movie as a voice just as thoroughly as she does in live action) have arranged that it shall be to one of the lords whose fealty to Fergus's crown is never more than tenuous at best. Merida, however, has absolutely no interest in being told what to do just because she's a princess, and from there, well...

It's a princess movie, all right, but complaints of Pixar taking marching orders from its marketing-crazed overseers at Disney are wildly misplaced. For one, Chapman's central idea has its genesis in the 2005-2006 corridor when relations between the two companies was at its lowest. And two (owing perhaps in part to one), Brave is in its way as much of a challenge to the Disney princess paradigm as DreamWorks Animation's Shrek franchise, albeit from a considerably different angle. For while the central motif of the Disney princess film that Disney wants you to think about is "headstrong girl wants to forge her own path", a much more suitable candidate is "headstrong girl falls madly in love with a cardboard prince and abandons her entire history in order to attain him" and in this, Brave could not be a stronger or more pronounced kiss-off to the corporate overlords. There is not a whisper of heteronormative pair-bonding in the conclusion to Brave's drama; not only does Merida end up quite single and quite happy about it, she's managed by the end to convince the rest of the cast that she's absolutely in the right for it. No indeed, the central dynamic here is mother and daughter, to the active exclusion of everything else.

Given that change, sure, the plot dynamic is roughly the same, marrying the Disney princess formula to the Pixar adventure formula with uncertain results - it requires two separate climaxes, one emotional and one physical, and the second of these doesn't feel as well-earned as it might - but whatever combination of Andrews, Chapman, and Purcell is responsible for pacing does a magnificent job of keeping the pace quick and the energy high without ever dropping into mania; by the time the mid-film plot twist shows up (a good one, and not exactly a surprise, but since the convention has emerged that we treat it as a spoiler, I will mention only that it ties Brave in with traditional European folklore in a manner that I find to be spectacularly effective, while also giving Julie Walters a terrific cameo as a bear-obsessed witch and woodcarver), the film seems to have just barely started, and it ends long before it starts to strain even with its tonal inconsistencies and duplicate climaxes. It's a gleefully entertaining adventure movie, in short, and what it lacks in cunning it makes up for in sincerity and crisply defined but still archetypal central characters.

There is, at last, the issue of how the thing looks, which is: nothing short of sublime. Catch me in a good mood, and I'd call it the most straight-up gorgeous animated movie since Disney's 1959 Sleeping Beauty; in a more objective state, I would see fit to drop it below The Lion King and a handful of Studio Ghibli pictures, at least. But we're still talking top-shelf, "oh my God, that is beautiful" design and animation here: the Scottish Highlands are one of those locations impossible to screw up on film, and that apparently extends to the Scottish Highlands as rendered in a computer as well, or at least the Pixar computers that have in the past few years hit the point where it seems that human imagination, and not technical proficiency, is the only limit to how amazing their films can look. Brave doesn't push the bar for the studio (though if there's any farther for the bar to go after WALL·E, I can't imagine where that might be). We have all the usual suspects: fog-shrouded standing stones and deep green valleys, profoundly grey stormy skies and burning sunsets that make your eyes water with pleasure (Danielle Feinberg, Pixar's in-house lighting specialist, remains one of the studio's great assets who never gets her due, probably because "director of photography" is a weird and counter-intuitive credit in animation). That plus the excellent character design - only Pixar's second human-driven movie after The Incredibles, Brave doesn't up the realism from that film so much as re-direct the style into something softer and paler, everything round where The Incredibles was supremely angular - and we have a movie that is wonderful to look at and behold, from the sun glowing on Merida's out-of-control red hair to the show-offy rainstorm that is one of the best things I've seen in 3-D all year. And sure, maybe it's more beauty for beauty's sake than beauty that necessarily contributes to the film's narrative, but I have long since reached a point where a movie that makes my breath stop because of how damned lovely it is not something I care to take for granted.

8/10

9 comments:

MrRoivas said...

In phrase: quite good, but not the best Pixar has done.

A bit more: Loved the relationship exploration. At the same time, I realize I've seen this movie before. It was Freaky Friday. But with more bears.

franklinshepard said...

I objectively noted the film's flaws, but really enjoyed it anyway. It definitely made me cry. And I never thought that anything Steve Purcell was involved with would do that to me (I say that as a HUGE Sam and Max fan.)

Zev Valancy said...

Brave was not entirely without flaws (it takes a while for the stakes to feel real, maybe, and sometimes spends time showing off the pretty to the detriment of the narrative momentum), but it is entirely gorgeous, charming, funny, and heartfelt. Too complain that it isn't a full out masterpiece seems rather unreasonable.

hayley said...

Brave had significant story problems.

The mother-daughter relationship was undercooked. The mythology aspects were messily delivered. And the bow turned into nothing but a symbol, it was the Chekov's gun problem (no payoff).

But mostly the mother-daughter relationship. We needed more time and human dimension between the two before the transformation.

Sssonic said...

It's hard not to feel like "Brave" is being asked to live up to a few too many sets of expectations. Consequently, while the movie does indeed have its problems, I feel like taken on its own merits it's good. Damned good, in fact, and I'm willing to guess its reputation will only improve as we move further and further away from the heat of the moment. It does suffer from some distinctly un-Pixar-like flaws, most notably a somewhat uneven story structure and a slight lack of focus, but overall it still manages to be endearing, enjoyable, and sincere in all the right ways.

To get the big criticisms out of the way first, the movie's pacing is definitely a bit more hectic than I'm used to from a Pixar film. The story progresses at a nice enough beat, but individual scenes wind up coming and going rather fast for my taste. One of the more important scenes of the movie winds up feeling almost like a throwaway gag despite its necessity to the plot because it just moves so quickly and keeps throwing a lot of little jokes at us as it does. Likewise, the movie takes a bit of time to set its dueling Tones of wild-and-woolly comedy (a LOT of slapstick in this movie) and a more serious sense of adventure and discovery (particularly of the Self) in balance with each other. For the most part, these things manage to work themselves out as the movie progresses, particularly the overall tone, but there are some kinks that keep going for the entire running time. Most notably, the three Lords and their sons never stop being anything but overly-caricatured buffoons, yet the movie ultimately asks us to care about them at a level beyond what that can achieve.

Thankfully, the central storyline winds up having less to do with the Lords than it does the conflicted relationship between Merida and her mother, and in this respect the movie succeeds admirably. The Royal Family as a whole is in fact highly enjoyable, and pretty much every time they interact, in whole or in part, the movie shines. The Triplets are an absolute triumph of physical comedy and non-verbal communication, for example, energetic and enjoyable in all the right ways and able to tell us exactly what we need to know simply through gesture and facial expression. Angus too makes for an enjoyable character, full of bluster and love in a hulking frame, not quite a Great Leader but unmistakably a Good Man. But again, it's Merida and Elinor who form the heart of the overall narrative, and the movie does a good job of treating their relationship believably and fairly. The movie understands where both these characters are coming from in their conflict with each other and shows us how each is right and wrong in their feelings and how they handle them. All that, AND the movie is absolutely beautiful. That's easy to take for granted in a Pixar film, I realize, but even by that high standard the animation in "Brave" absolutely stands tall as one of the studio's finest achievements. The landscapes are gorgeous, the overall design work is strong, and most crucially the characters all move with a remarkable flexibility and energy, particularly in the way they emote facially; there are more memorable things done with facial expressions here than in almost any other Pixar film, which to my mind is a BIG plus.

So no, "Brave" is not one of Pixar's best films as a whole, but I'd also happily rank it above, say, "Cars" or "A Bug's Life" (or even "Monsters, Inc.", I think), and on its own two feet it stands just fine. The elements that work wind up being far more memorable than the ones that don't, and the end result is a movie that succeeds nicely at being highly enjoyable and enjoyably heartfelt.

Vianney said...

When I came out of it, my first thought was "blindingly gorgeous, but pointless.", which was almost the exact same thought I had had coming out of The Lion King, eons ago. So your mention of the earlier film brings me joy, in a way!
Back then, I feared that becoming an adult had finally jaded me to cartoons and I wouldn't be able to enjoy any other one anymore (which partly explains why i skipped Toy Story, and waited over half a decade to catch up)
Now, I fear that my boy-centerism is shielding me from the beautiful mother/daughter relationship and the more feminine concerns of the plot... but it's the few action sequences that I was least impressed by!
It just never seems to know where it's going, and doesn't let time to build up any stakes before resolving them. For instance, the 'tensions' about the wedding ultimately peak in a 4-way catfight within one room, with the opponents throwing jabs (and the occasional punch/arrow) at each other.


Really liked the short, it wasn't anything groundbreaking but I thought you'd have a word for its cuteness!

Tim said...

In re the short: I've actually already reviewed it.

Vianney said...

Aaaah, cool. cool cool cool.
Yep, 3D helped :)

Matt said...

This is random but in an analytical perspective, am I the only one who sees the success of Toy Story 3 to be parallel to the success of The Lion King? Just think about it: Both became the highest grossing animated films of their times, both of their follow-ups were critically panned/disappointed audiences the following summer who were expecting something bigger and made only HALF of it's predeccessor's worldwide gross (Pocahontas and Cars 2), and the films that followed those made slightly less many but slight more praise than the previous summer film (Brave and Hunchback). Pretty much how the Disney Renaissance came full circle with The Lion King, I think the same thing can be said (somewhat) about Pixar films. Once The Hobbit comes out, Brave will most likely not be in the Top 10 Worldwide Gross Charts which will be a first for a Pixar film (Cars 2 was at #10 last year).