Saturday, July 7, 2012

Movie Review: BRAVE (Disney/Pixar, 2012)

I suppose that the best complement that I can give to Brave is that it turned out to be the perfect 90-minute time-killer for a pair of weary, sweat-saturated adults (Nicky and myself) who needed to get out of our dark and airless house and into some air-conditioned comfort.  Certainly, no movie, least of all a Summer release, should be completely ashamed of that bite-sized blurb... but, then again, we've come to expect far more from a Pixar movie, haven't we?  That's the trouble with excellence... once it's established, it's expected.  There are some powerful moments in Brave, to be sure, and Pixar is to be applauded for arresting the seductive slide into sequelitis (which, alas, will resume next Summer) and challenging audiences with a setting (medieval Scotland) that would probably not be on the "short list" of promising locations for animated features.  But I don't think that this one is ultimately going to leave behind very many lasting memories.


Several folks have already remarked on the similarities between the plot of Brave (especially in its latter stages)  and that of the Disney 2-D feature Brother Bear (2003).  I'm not able to comment directly on that, since I haven't seen the latter film.  Disney TV Animation devotee that I am, however, I immediately made with the "Seen it!" routine when I saw the headstrong Princess Merida enter -- and defeat -- her would-be suitors in the archery contest. Watch Gummi Bears' Princess Calla strut her stuff in the 1988 episode "Girl's Knight Out."

The story that was so nice, writers Katye Kuch and Sheryl Scarborough used it twice (even stretching it out to book length in the latter version!  And I thought haggis was an efficient use of available resources).

Now, it must be admitted that Merida's willingness to forego an elaborate disguise and face down the trio of bunglers (not to mention her imperious mother, Queen Elinor) herself was a sterner immediate test of her courage.  This was only to be expected, since failure or acquiescence would have left her locked into a potentially loveless betrothal, as opposed to merely being annoyed by an unnecessary guardian.  But you can't deny that Calla got there, or somewhere near there, first... and her dilemma was given a little extra poignancy by the fact that she was defying a much less abrasive parental figure than Elinor.  The dynamics of the Merida-Elinor relationship -- young would-be ruler wants to defy convention and go her own way, well-meaning but over-controlling mother gets in the way, leading to a violent and potentially permanent break -- somehow seem much more pat.  Pixar has made its reputation by a willingness to challenge such overly conventional narrative setups and dish up such atypical notions as rats wanting to become French chefs, grumpy old men yearning for adventure, or superheroes shackled by lawsuits.   The only real novelty involved in the core conflict of Brave is the fact that both of the main characters are women, and, in this era of "more-manly-than-most-men" female action heroes, this wasn't a particularly daring leap into the unknown.

A lot of people seem to have fallen out of love with Brave once the witch's spell caused Elinor to don her new "ursona."  At this point, I think that the movie actually picked up a bit.  Granted, there's a lot of drawn-out slapstick in the castle and a lot of gags involving Elinor's struggle to maintain at least a shred of dignity in her new form, but I was really taken by how effectively the animators switched between the "Elinor-possessed" bear and the more savage, feral version of same.  I could see this juxtaposition being very frightening to children.  The climactic scene in which Elinor-bear's eyes appear to turn blank and "non-human" for good and all was simply marvelous.  Indeed, I believe that the totality of Brave's animation -- from the beautiful aerial scenes of the medieval landscape to the terrors of the final (and, of course, storm-tossed) chase sequences -- may be the "x-factor," if any such exists, that keep Brave from falling into the (hitherto, rather thinly populated) category of "just an OK Pixar film."

The end of the movie, and the resolution of the quarrel between Merida and Elinor, seemed a bit lopsided insofar as "give and take" was concerned.  Granted, it wasn't a complete "sweep-the-board" vindication of Merida's independence; she will still have to marry one of the suitors, she will simply have more of a say in the choice.  (Left unexplored is the question of what Merida will do if NONE of the young lads measure up to the appropriate standards of a potential mate.  Och!  Hae we the hook for a possible sequel here??)  But, for all of Merida's new-found wisdom concerning the dangers inherent in changing one's fate, it still seems to me that Merida ultimately had far more of an influence on Elinor's general outlook than Elinor did on Merida's, what with Elinor, her hair symbolically unkempt (all the better to contrast with the queen's earlier, tightly-bound look -- not to mention her amusing attempt to lock an unwilling Merida into the same bone-cracking raiment), now happily riding with her daughter over hill and dale.  Does this mean that Elinor will now wave off obligations for Merida to "act like a lady"?  Those aren't limited to courting sessions, after all.

I've had very little to say about the male characters in Brave, and for good reason -- by and large, they're mainly just a bluff, blustering backdrop to the distaff battle of wills.  The gargantuan, meat-scarfing King Fergus (Billy Connolly) perpetually hovers on the verge of being a buffoon, though his legitimate concern for Elinor and Merida is a big plus.  The leaders and loin-products of the different "Clans" only really come to life when they're participating in melees or showing off what is (or isn't) under their kilts.  And as for Merida's three identical, hell-raising brothers... Huey, Dewey, and Louie just called, and they want their original personalities back, if only for nostalgic purposes.  (Speaking of calling, I really could have done without the "phone menu" gag involving Merida and the absent witch.  Brave had already taken a fair number of liberties with history by including a large number of anachronistic elements that wouldn't become associated with Scottish culture until much later.  All well and good, given the vaguely "mythical" aspects of the setting and story, but such "yank-you-out-of-the-milieu" anachronisms in animated films have become a little stale by now (don't even get me started on the Ice Age movies -- especially this new one, with its use of pirate shtick in deep antiquity!).

La Luna, this release's pre-feature Pixar short, is very appealing and, intriguingly enough, is also fairly strongly tied to some of the themes of the movie which it precedes, dealing as it does with the importance of maintaining family traditions (and, sometimes, going beyond them when necessary).  The only complaint I would make concerns the decision to let the characters grunt, "ooh" and "aah" rather than speak.  Why not simply allow them to speak Italian, which would have been quite charming and would still have gotten the point across, thanks to Pixar's outstanding animation?  Or was Pixar worried that releasing such a version of the short in Italy would have caused confusion?  Still, I respect Pixar's consistency in (generally) eschewing dialogue in these palate-cleansers and allowing the animation to tell the story. Such an approach has paid dividends in terms of allowing the studio to stretch the limits of computer-generated animation... with end products like the splendidly mounted, albeit thematically problematic, Brave.

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