[20 June 2012]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
For Pixar, the bloom is off the aesthetic rose. For more than a decade, the animation outfit was seen as the overriding benchmark for quality CG. From the brilliance of Toy Story to the crowd pleasing parameters of Finding Nemo, Monsters Inc. , and that merchandising behemoth, Cars, John Lasseter and the gang have always delivered. Even the most strict critics have found little to kvetch about within their hallowed oeuvre. Then Cars 2 came out and Pixar suffered its first major artistic blows. Fans may have flocked to the film, but pundits and those in the movie reviewing game eviscerated the less than successful spy spoof…and the claws have still not fully retracted.
Now, like a hunter anxious to pounce on its prey, the studio’s latest release, Brave, is set for skepticism. Even its trouble production history bodes badly for some. Those who’ve given Pixar a pass are awaiting yet another defeat, while those who support everything they do hope there’s not another lackluster effort to defend. The good news then is that Brave is a very good movie. It’s more of a classic folktale than a prissy parable from someone like Grimm. Yes, it wanders into familiar territory from time to time. No narrative built on the byplay between a disgruntled teen and her mother can avoid such stereotyping. But because of an interesting creative choice made, and the overall look and feel of the film, this is a winner draped in dispirit expectations.
Though she is the Princess and next in line for her father’s (Billy Connolly) throne, Merida (Kelly Macdonlad) is anything but a lady. She loves to roughhouse and roam the forests alone. She’s also become a skilled archer which makes her prim and proper mother (Emma Thompson) livid. Hoping to make her into a proper member of the Court, the Queen constantly reprimands her daughter. She even sets up a gathering of the other clans, the better to offer her child a respectable suitor. Of course, Merida wants none of this and runs away from home. Happening upon the cottage of a cranky witch (Julie Walters), she strikes up a bargain. If the old bat uses her magic to change her mother’s mind, she will buy all her ornate carvings. Of course, the spell ends up backfiring, leaving Merida to figure out what to do next.
Yes, the last portion of the plot outline is specifically vague, and doesn’t take into consideration the last full hour of the film. That’s because Brave packs a surprise that, while more or less given away in the trailers, truly alters your potential appreciation. If you buy the gimmick and give it a chance to play out, you will be deeply rewarded. It’s an affecting and very emotional turn, a twist you might see coming, but pays off in ways wholly natural and totally unexpected. It’s a gamble, there’s no doubt about it. The result turns Brave decided dark and demanding. This isn’t some goofy romp where anthropomorphized anythings spit one-liners at the audience. Instead, Brave demands attention, and when paid, rewards same.
That being said, the first act of the film is a bit flat. We’ve seen this before - the stubborn noble who wants to live his or her own life outside the requisites of her position, the parent who disapproves, the other who secretly supports him or her, the obstacles in the way, the eventual act of rebellion. The Scottish setting adds little, since we don’t get many important cultural keynotes. Instead, Merida acts like a brat, her mother constantly corrects her, and Dad is an outsized party animal who can’t see beyond his legendary appetites and acts of courage. The result is something that feels routine, even if Pixar gives it a polish few films could match.
But once the witch steps in and alters things, Brave begins to bubble. By the end, when the tone has gone from happy to harrowing, we are completely and utterly invested. In fact, what’s clear is that the languid, familiar opening material is necessary to set up both the characters and their connections, allowing the latter elements to gel in just the right manner. Before we know it, the anxiety we felt over not finding the emotional core to this movie suddenly melts away, and like any good Pixar effort, you discover yourself cheering for the good guys and rooting for a happily ever after. And it’s at this moment where Brave makes its boldest decision.
No, the narrative doesn’t suddenly spin into something even darker and more dour. Yes, the storyline stays about the same as you imagine, but it makes the audience earn its response. Like a great suspense film, or a moment of unexpected joy within an otherwise normal situation, the ending here soars in a manner so special that it’s hard to fathom its full impact. You just aren’t ready for how the movie moves you, how it takes everything you’ve witnessed for the last 90 minutes and puts it together superbly. You’re rewarded for paying close attention, for wondering why certain scenes play out longer than they should. Brave banks on a viewer with a long attention span. This is not some throwaway bit of commercial claptrap. It’s an honest to goodness yarn with a powerful payoff.
Still, don’t go in expecting the Pixar of the past. Unlike the breezy, beautiful middle section of their output which showcased their style magnificently, Brave is a lot more complicated. Put another way, it’s more Up than The Incredibles. As the studio settles in for its second decade of production, there’s clearly a desire to break free from the normal confines of cartooning to extend the range and scope of the animated artform. There are some beautiful visuals here, things never before seen within a standard family film, but this doesn’t limit one’s enjoyment. Instead, Brave is entertaining in ways both traditional and novel. We aren’t used to such depth in our mainstream movie experience. Pixar purposefully bets on same and the results are resplendent.