Letter From The Editor - Issue 58 - August 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
At The Picture Show
June 2012

Brave

The Disney Zone

Pixar slides into familiar territory in the charming, if altogether modest, 'Brave'

Brave
Walt Disney Studios
Director: Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman
Screenplay: Mark Andrews, Steve Purcell, Brenda Chapman and Irene Mecchi
Starring: The voices of Kelly Macdonald, Billy Connolly, Emma Thompson, Julie Walters, Robbie Coltrane, Kevin McKidd and Craig Ferguson
Rated PG / 1 hour, 40 minutes
Opened June 22, 2012
(out of four)

Pixar has finally made its first Disney movie. It could no longer resist the temptation to emulate its mothership with the very thing that it built its name on so many decades ago - that good old-fashioned princess fairy tale.

And now that Brave has been made and released, they can say they've done it. They've gotten it out of their system. If this is the Pixar masterminds getting their requisite princess movie out of the way, they did a fine job doing it. But now it's done, and they can get back to what they do best - which is creating that which we can't get from, say, DreamWorks. Or anybody else, for that matter.

What we get in Brave - developed first under the stewardship of Brenda Chapman before she was replaced by Mark Andrews - is a film of exquisite animation and unremarkable ambition. Its tale of a princess rebelling against a predetermined fate and forging her own path is a familiar one, complete with the disapproving mother, the witch's curse and the animal sidekick. That it is set against the backdrop of some beautifully drawn Scottish vistas only tells us what we already know - that Pixar is home to some extraordinary visual artists.

But it is also made up of extraordinary storytellers, and in that regard Brave is a conspicuously lesser effort. In replicating an oft-successful Disney formula, the film feels too much like the princess who's content to follow in the footsteps of all that came before her, rather than the one who creates her own identity.

Admittedly, Pixar's deservedly lofty reputation works against Brave a bit, and I suspect many of the lukewarm reviews will eventually turn into warmer ones, once time allows the movie to stand on its own and avoid comparison to the more daring work the studio is known for. It's hard to say Brave isn't at least a good movie - it's funny and charming and enjoyable, and it glides along with an effortless sense of grace. Yet it rarely transcends its expectations. In short, it is a very nice movie - just not a special one.

To be fair to Pixar, when you've set the bar at "special," you can be forgiven for making the occasional film that's merely good.

The princess at the center of the story is Merida (voiced by - who else? - Kelly Macdonald), her wild tassels of deep red curls splashing across every frame. The first-born child of Clan DunBroch's King Fergus (who else but Billy Connolly?) and Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson), the tomboyish Merida resists her mother's attempts to streamline her into a "presentable" lady, opting instead to spend her time exploring, hiking, rock-climbing, and becoming the best archer in the entire kingdom.

The crux of the story revolves around the tension between mother and daughter, and that leads to one of the film's best sequences - interlocking scenes of the two expressing to others what they can't say to each other. But that conflict is also where Brave runs into the most trouble. After being forced to endure a ceremony wherein the first-born sons of the kingdom compete for her hand in marriage, Merida upstages all three challengers, gets into a heated row with the Queen and storms off into the woods, where she's baited toward the hut of a crafty old witch. You know what comes next - the innocent spell that turns into a great curse, and which must be broken by doing such-and-such by the morning of the such-and-such dawn.

Needless to say, the spell/curse involves Queen Elinor, and Merida spends the rest of the film trying to undo her wrong while reconciling with her mother. The problem is, that reconciliation is reached too easily and with too little effort. By the time they've reached an understanding with one another, it feels like we'd hardly gotten a chance to really understand their feelings. In fact, the filmmakers don't seem to give much weight to Merida and Elinor's feelings, either - the curse brings them together by necessity of plot, but there's little progress made by any other means. In the best of Pixar, a story obstacle like that has been grounds for some of its greatest creative flourishes. (Think of all the wrinkles in Toy Story 3 after the toys get trapped at Sunnyside.) Here, it's merely ignored so we can move on with the next logical step of a story we already know.

Like all of Pixar's efforts, this one makes its best qualities seem almost effortless - which is maybe why we're disappointed when, as in this case, we're presented with something pretty good instead of pretty great. Good just seems to come naturally.

The truth is, most of Brave is extremely pleasant nonetheless. In fits and starts, it's outstanding - and there are still a number of classic Pixar touches. Consider Queen Elinor's body language after the spell first takes hold; or the nonsensical Scottish inflections of the Young MacGuffin (Kevin McKidd); or the absurd introductory scene of the witch in her hut full of bear-themed wood-carvings. Not to mention the animation itself - particularly the forest, with its knotty, Gothic tree limbs enshrouding all inhabitants in darkness and gloom.

Pixar has succeeded in sort of creating its own genres, but it's been equally successful working within existing templates (i.e. The Incredibles) and merging styles. Andrews, Chapman and Co.'s attempt to take on the princess subgenre is an intriguing one, but ultimately Brave feels more like a reproduction (albeit a strong one) than a revitalization.

Read more by Chris Bellamy


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