Thursday, February 14, 2013

Brave Is Lower-Tier Pixar, But That's Really Not Such a Bad Thing

The animation in this film ranks up there with the best Pixar has done.

As of late, Pixar’s taken a decent amount of slack from fans that believe they’ve lost the golden touch or sold out or maybe a combination of the two.

It’s an understandable fan reaction. For so long, it felt like the studio produced a stone cold classic each time out, and so greatness became something of an expectation. As a result, anything less than spectacular has gotten an automatic dismissal.

That was certainly the case with the original Cars, a creatively imagined and animated (if at times confounding) take on Doc Hollywood that had the misfortune of being merely good and perhaps too commercially kid approved. The fact that such a massive hit (with a plethora of continual merchandising appeal) probably afforded the company the ability to go on an incredibly ambitious, risk-taking run of Ratatouille, Wall-E, and Up, is certainly overlooked by the naysayers.

Since that run, the studio has further alienated fans by green lighting a long line of sequels. So far we’ve seen Toy Story 3 (a total slam-dunk) and Cars 2 (better than many movies you’ll see in a given year, but still their worst film by a long shot), but on the docket is the upcoming Monsters University, Planes (which is actually a DisneyToon Studios joint, but as a continuation of the Cars franchise, most will look at it as Pixar), and the recently announced Finding Nemo 2.

Many fans of Monsters Inc. and Finding Nemo fear the studio is sullying two classics in a greedy attempt to make money. Although I’m sure finances played a major part here, it’s hard for me to forget how expertly they turned Toy Story into a thematically rich trilogy. It’s not impossible to imagine them doing something similar with these two franchises, especially with the talent involved, so I'm withholding judgement.

No this isn't from Brave. It's concept art for the studio's
canceled film Newt.
However, even taking into account Toy Story 3’s excellence and assuming solid second outings for the Monsters and Nemo franchises, it’s no surprise a case of sequelitis is setting in amongst fans. The beautiful thing about Pixar was always their ability to keep churning out excitingly original masterpieces and now the studio is in the midst of a four-film stretch that contains three sequels (Toy Story 3, Cars 2, and Monsters University).*

*This stretch wouldn’t feel as sequel heavy if the studio hadn't canceled Newt, which revolved around the only two remaining blue-footed newts being forced together to perpetuate the species despite hating one another. Apparently, it was pulled due to similarities to Rio, which is a shame, because the premise sounded fun and the concept art was amazing (click here to see about a dozen of images).

The other film in that run is, of course, Brave, the movie I actually intend to review in this piece. Brave marks Pixar’s first fairy tale and its first film with a female protagonist, but, like Cars, it has come under fire for being a lesser Pixar entry. And it’s hard to argue that point. Once again, we’re dealing with a film that has great visuals and a good theme, but still comes across a bit lacking.

Look at the detail in that face. It's insane.
The problems with Brave are fairly obvious. It’s too preoccupied with being cute, especially in the buffoonish characterization of most of the cast. And, outside of a solid set up, the story’s pretty slight. I really appreciated the complicated mother-daughter issues in the piece, but it’s all resolved in such shockingly swift and precursory fashion. One could easily see this being Pixar’s female driven counterpoint to Finding Nemo, but it’s just a way more modest endeavor that often feels like nothing more than a grab bag of familiar trappings from other Disney movies –the need to marry off an unwilling princess in Aladdin, the “parent knows best or does he/she?” setup from Little Mermaid, the whole turning into a bear trope from Brother Bear, and so forth and so on.**

** I’m not sure if the film suffered at all due to the directorial issues that occurred during production. This was meant to be the first female-directed Pixar film, but, at some point, writer/director Brenda Chapman left the project and Pixar staffer Mark Andrews finished the job. The film feels tonally of one piece, but I would be very interested to learn more about what happened with that and how it may have affected the film.

Nevertheless, there is a boatload of things to like about the movie. For starters, it’s stunningly beautiful. The animators really embraced the challenge of creating a foggy, woodland environment, and the studio continues to impress with their artistry and attention to detail.

On top of that, Patrick Doyle’s Celtic-flavored score is top notch, and the songs are uniformly excellent. In fact, I’m still somewhat shocked neither “Learn Me Right” or “Touch the Sky” received an Oscar nomination (especially “Learn Me Right,” which would have enabled Mumford and Sons to perform on the telecast).

Meanwhile, although I wasn’t a big fan of most of the peripheral characterizations, I thought Merida’s family was pitched just right. Aided by excellent voice work by Kelly Macdonald, Merida is a worthy addition to Disney’s tradition of strong-willed princesses, and both her parents felt like living, breathing characters. And despite most of the comedy falling flat for me, I did enjoy the triplets, and appreciated the decision to keep them almost entirely silent throughout the course of the movie.

This is teaser art from the upcoming Inside the Mind
director Pete Docter's follow-up to Monsters Inc. and Up.
So, overall, I would say it’s far from top-tier Pixar, but a good effort nonetheless. I’m not sure demanding fans are  happy with that, but it’s not all gloom and sequels on the horizon. Pixar's upcoming slate also features a slew of original and interesting looking films focusing on dinosaurs, a little girl's mind, and Dia de los Muertos (click here to get a sneak peek at each one). 

I'd stake money another Pixar masterpiece is on the way, but until that time, I'm content to enjoy any Pixar output that comes my way. B