Thursday, July 19, 2012


Alternate Title:  Paging Doctor Phil...

One sentence synopsis:    A Scottish princess tries to escape marriage and the control of her mother.

Things Havoc liked:  We consistently expect greatness from Pixar. We consistently expect greatness because they consistently provide it. Wall-E, Up, the Incredibles, Finding Nemo, the goddamned Toy Story series (My alternate title for Toy Story 3 would have been "You will weep like a baby"), year after year, Pixar has given us some of the finest if not the finest animated stories I for one have ever seen. Walking into a Pixar film is therefore, to me, almost like watching a High Wire act performed with no net. The expectations are so high that they will not tolerate the slightest slip.

Brave is a Pixar film, and as a Pixar film, some things simply need to be dispensed with. The animation is, of course, breathtakingly beautiful, caricatured, yes, but significantly more realistic than most of the rest of Pixar's body of work. Long gone are the days when the Incredibles (which looked good if not great) represented the cutting edge of Pixar's human animation, and the detailing on these characters (particularly their hair) is photo-quality in all conditions. People are dirty, blood-smeared, or soaking wet, but the animation keeps pace all without drawing attention to itself. Models are far more detailed than even Pixar tends to make them, and the design is such that we can easily tell the difference in the mental state of a non-talking bear from shot to shot with only slight alterations to the eyes and jowls. The settings are gorgeous, vibrant, and distinctive from all previous Pixar works, giving us a taste of stylized Scotland that one could easily lose one's eye in and picture as real. The cinematography is classic Pixar, with a liberated camera that unerringly finds the perfect angle to illustrate the tapestry before us, and even some touches of false-reality added in such as faded middlegrounds and camera angle tricks that one generally wouldn't see in an animated movie. For the three remaining people in the world who imagined that Pixar might produce a badly-made film, you may all set your fears to rest.

Voice acting, as is standard for Pixar films, is spot on. The main character, Princess Merida, is ably voiced by native Scott Kelly MacDonald (of Gosford Park and No Country for Old Men), while her mother, Queen Elinor, receives the voice of Emma Thompson. Thompson, in particular, does a fantastic job with what is arguably the second main character, to the point where, though I've heard her voice a thousand times, and she makes no effort to disguise it here (beyond a soft Scottish accent), I absolutely did not recognize her voice, as it seemed to be a perfectly natural part of the character on screen. The rest of the voice cast is filled with actors I invariably enjoy such as Billy Connolly, Craig Ferguson, Kevin McKidd, and Robbie Coltraine. As with Thompson, I did not recognize a single one of them (save for Connolly, whom I knew about going in) until after the film, a testament to how well animated characters and voices were matched throughout the film. Finally, like all Pixar movies, Brave is wickedly funny, especially in key parts, with high-speed visual gags that fly in one after the next, some aimed at kids, some at older kids, and some at adults.

But what elevates Pixar films above the standard animated fare is not their visuals or voice-casting or even humor, but the sincerity, sophistication, and poignancy of the stories they tell. This time, Pixar made a very conscious decision to try a female main character (their first), and has brought us a story that revolves primarily around Princess Merida and her mother. There's nothing tremendously new about the material. Merida is a free-spirited teenager (in an age before that term was invented), who resents the control her mother has over her life, and the rules to which she, as a Princess, is expected to adhere. We've seen this stuff before. The "Princess who wants more" trope goes back, in animation, at least to the Little Mermaid if not long before. But the film quite cleverly knows that we've seen it before, compressing what for a Disney flick would be an entire film (Princess exerts her independence, confronts the men who would take her life over, and wins out through skill and daring) into the first act of this movie, and then turning to the question of what happens next. In doing so, it focuses the movie on two important elements not normally seen in this sort of film. One is the issue, as I mentioned, of what happens after the bold declaration of independence. "Competing for your own hand" in marriage is all well and good, but the movie points out that politics and war are involved in a princess' betrothal, and that casually throwing these things aside can lead to copious bloodshed, shattered alliances, and civil war. The other (stronger) element is the core relationship between Merida and her mother, and what their different opinions on responsibility and decorum actually mean. This is not a case of the wicked (or overbearing and out-of-touch) parent unfairly suppressing her daughter out of jealousy, stupidity, or stubbornness. Both characters are presented sympathetically, and the rifts that rip them apart are given real weight.

Things Havoc disliked:   Or rather they would be given real weight if the behavior of Merida was not so appalling.

Okay, yes, Merida is a teenager, and teenagers, by and large, do act thoughtlessly and selfishly. Wealth, privilege, and loving parents have no effect on this fact of life, and I've definitely seen teenage girls act even more horribly than this. That said, some of this character's actions approach sociopathy, and that's where this movie begins to lose us.

I've got to be somewhat coy here. I was not expecting to see some of the things in this movie that I wound up seeing, particularly some of the actions that Merida takes when trying to change her destiny and evade betrothal to a group of men she does not wish to marry. I accept that forced marriage is something one would wish to fight against. I also accept that in a moment of stupidity, anger, or desperation, Merida might do something as galactically foolish as she does in this film. What I don't accept is the flippancy with which she deals with the consequences. Teenagers may talk a good game about hating their parents who don't understand them, but most of them would be upset at the prospect of having poisoned their own mother (by accident or otherwise) or generally placed their parents in jeopardy of death or equally horrible fates. Merida does try to deal with the mess she makes, but we do not sense the panic or fear or even a particular tone of urgency in her efforts to repair the truly terrible things she's done, at least not for a good long while. Given the lengths to which Elinor, wrong-headed though she may be, goes to try and connect with or help her daughter, and the truly awful danger she winds up in, the lack of concern for the consequences of her actions displayed by Merida completely destroys the balancing act that Pixar was trying to produce between the two characters, at least for much of the film.

Now to be fair, yes, Media does eventually come to appreciate the jaw-dropping carelessness of her own actions, as well as the life-shattering consequences they might have. And yes, when she does so, the resulting scenes are both moving and tender, as one might expect from Pixar. But by that point we've spent half the film in the company of a girl who seems either oblivious to the point of stupidity or uncaring to the point of psychosis. In consequence, the scenes in which Elinor softens towards Merida's perspective (you did not seriously expect this was a movie about an irreparable family rift with no solutions, did you?) come across as flat and forced. I do see what they're going for, but if nothing else, the lesson of the entire journey would seem (to me at least) that Merida's mother was right all along, if only because Merida is so unforgivably thoughtless and her mother so infinitely patient and protective. There's simply no counterbalancing lesson to push things in the direction of Merida's being right, for the simple fact that the arguments against her are too damning and the plight she is rebelling against too slight by comparison. As a result, the ultimate solution that the movie comes to feels both forced and rushed, as characters spontaneously agree to things I did not believe they would agree to, or express opinions that the movie has not earned.

Final thoughts:  Maybe it sounds like I'm nitpicking (which I'm not), or at least taking one single thing and harping endlessly on it (which I guess I am), but this issue is not a small one insofar as the film is concerned. Pixar movies are held to such a high standard because the interaction of the characters is so real (and raw) that despite their being robots, fish, children's toys, or grumpy old men, we identify so strongly with the emotions on display that our reactions are almost written for us. This only works if the characters, idiosyncratic as they are, make sense to us within their particular contexts, and this movie simply lost me for a good long part of it. Indeed, part of the problem is that Queen Elinor is so well crafted that the dissonance of her daughter's actions makes the film seem almost uncomfortable at times, at least for me.

I have to admit that I was avoiding this film for several weeks before I went to see it, as the concept seemed forced ("Look! We can have strong, independent female characters!") and rather pedestrian for an animation studio that had, until now, eschewed Magic Princess stories entirely. To my surprise, those issues that I expected to run into did not materialize.  To my even greater surprise, other, much more problematic issues surfaced in their place. Pixar is, of course, a great movie studio, and even when they make mistakes, the movies they produce are still of excellent quality. But while Brave is ultimately a good film, and maybe even a very good film, another Pixar masterpiece it simply is not.

Final Score:  6.5/10

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