Tuesday, November 27, 2012

'Brave': Not Pixar's Best, But There's Nothing Wrong With That

My friend Julia observed a few months back that a group of us on Facebook always have the same conversation whenever a new Pixar movie comes out. For lack of a better term, let's call it the "Cars Test." In a nutshell, someone will make a comment about the latest Pixar release. If any reservations about the film are expressed, the next person will almost invariably ask, "Is it better than Cars?", which we generally agree is the weakest of the Pixar films. After that, a lively discussion will ensue as to which movies are the best and which are the worst. Up, Toy Story 2 and The Incredibles are my favorites (along with Wall-E, which I'm surprised to find some of my friends don't care for--what is wrong with them?). At the bottom of my list are Cars (naturally) and Ratatouille (for all its beautiful animation, it's still about rats in a kitchen--ick). In the last year or so, I've come to the defense of Cars 2, which, despite being panned by the majority of critics, I find to be one of Pixar's most entertaining gee-let's-just-have-some-silly-fun-with-this movies.

I often wonder if Pixar's feature film track record is a blessing or a curse for the animators and film makers in Emeryville. They've made great films--some instant classics--and some flawed films, but they have never made a truly bad one, so every new release automatically comes with the baggage of high expectations. Consequently, it's becoming increasingly difficult to review a Pixar film on its own terms anymore without making a knee-jerk assessment of how it ranks against its predecessors.

That said, Brave--now available on home video--is not perfect, but it's better than Cars. Very much so.

It's an exquisitely animated film steeped in Scottish folklore that presents Pixar's very first female protagonist. Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald)  is a headstrong young princess in a clan ruled by her father, King Fergus (Billy Connolly), a burly and gregarious warrior who lost part of his leg in a legendary battle with a vicious bear named Mor'du. Merida takes much after her father. She's grown up learning his fighting ways and has become very skilled with weaponry, especially a bow and arrow, much to the chagrin of her regal mother, Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson), who believes Merida should respect tradition and act more like a proper princess.

Merida and her mum, Queen Elinor
That is the central conflict of Brave, mother steadfastly adhering to the ancestral ways, daughter asserting her independent thoughts and ideals. When Merida, against the Queen's wishes, defiantly shows up three oafish would-be suitors in an archery competition to win her hand, it results in an angry confrontation between mother and daughter. Merida storms off, eventually seeking the services of a witch (Julie Walters) to cast a spell that will change her fate. Merida wants to follow her own path and not be subject to the dictates of her mother.

As the expression goes, be careful what you wish for. The spell indeed changes Merida's fate, but it also puts her family in mortal danger and threatens to destroy the entire kingdom. It's up to Merida to somehow mend the damage and, in the process, learn the values of understanding and compromise.

Brave is both humorous and heartfelt, adeptly tapping into the complex emotions that bind all mothers and daughters together. There is depth to both Merida's and the Queen's characters. You see the love and the stubbornness that define them both--the emotions that push them apart and ultimately bring them back together. If there's any weakness in the film, it's that the emotional moments don't always flow smoothly with the comic ones, which tend to be too broad at times. There's the obligatory what-Scotsmen-wear-under-their-kilts joke, and I thought the witch was unnecessarily over the top in a Warner Bros. Witch Hazel sort of way. These are minor beefs, however, in a film that otherwise has its heart in the right place.

So, where does that put Brave in the Pixar hierarchy of films? For me, it lands it squarely in the bottom half of Pixar's 13 feature-length productions. But that's no sin, not when you consider it's in the company of Toy Story and A Bug's Life. That's the pleasure of Pixar films. Even their second bests are better than most.

I'll post my ranking of the Pixar films one of these days.  In the meantime, what's your favorite? Your least favorite? And where does Brave fit in the mix? Leave your comments below or share your thoughts on Facebook.


1 comment:

  1. See, I'm the weirdo that actually loves Cars. I don't understand what everyone else has against it, but I also know that our individual receptions to these films is all about personal connections. Especially as the library of Pixar films has grown. You and I may fully agree on Ratatouille (it's visually stunning, but gross all the same), but I know others who adore it.

    For me, I've found that the more excited I am prior to a Pixar film's release (based on trailers, concept and general buzz), the less likely I am to fully enjoy the actual film. The movies that don't grab my interest at all prior to release seem to wind up being my favorites when I actually sit down and give them a chance. Perhaps that's not a Pixar thing and only a reflection of where I set my own expectations, but so far it has held fairly true with Pixar. As such, I was super stoked about Brave before it's release (I'm a sucker for most things with a Celtic flair), but I was underwhelmed when I saw the final film. I liked it. It was visually stunning, and I'll watch it again for exactly that reason. However I didn't LOVE it. Like you, I place it somewhere in the lower half (or middle of the pack as it were). I went in with certain expectations, but then the story wound up being very different from what I anticipated. I just couldn't get over the fact that it felt like a retread of another less successful Disney film with a similar "transformation."(I'm withholding the name of said film so as not to spoil Brave for those who haven't yet seen it.) It's better than that film, and it obviously uses a different relationship, but it's still the same basic idea and something about that bugged me. But that's my perspective. I totally see the beauty and the appeal in the film for mothers and daughters who can relate to the film in a way that I never will.

    I look forward to seeing your complete Pixar rankings so we can all enjoy that lively debate. ;-)