Monday, June 25, 2012


Excellence can be a dangerous endeavor; potentially fatal when attained. Whenever a studio or band or artist of any kind achieves true excellence and can demonstrate the ability to persist in that excellence, they by extension raise the bar by which they're measured. Persist in excellence long enough and the bar may exceed even their own abilities. That's certainly not to disparage the pursuit of excellence; quite the contrary.

Pixar is a perfect example of this, in my estimation. Time after the time that studio has released animated films so spectacular it seemed impossible they could top themselves with their next title. And time and time again they did...until Cars 2, that is. So where does Brave, the latest release from the aforementioned animation powerhouse, fall in relation to Pixar's unique reputation?

The story follows a fiery-headed - both figuratively and literally - Scottish princess named Merida (voiced by Kelly MacDonald). The beginning of the film is almost unbearably familiar thematically: princess has to conform to tradition and choose a suitor, princess is too independent and strong-willed to submit to precedent, princess rebels while secondary characters gasp in shock and disgust. It's basically everything the trailers make it out to be for the first 30 minutes or so. But then, the film takes a clever and surprisingly innovative turn when Merida encounters a witch. After soliciting a potion from the witch to "change her fate," Merida finds the consequences of her actions may lead to a more disastrous end than she could have possibly imagined - setting in motion the rest of the film's adventure.


Scotland's countryside is world-renown for its beauty and grandeur. Conventional wisdom says that set pieces and scenery aren't nearly as important in an animated film as the characters themselves, and Pixar takes their usual revisionist approach to said conventional wisdom. The Scotland of Brave is breathtakingly beautiful. Having never personally visited and only seen glimpses in film and photograph, I found myself actively scanning the landscape around the characters out of sheer wonder. The animation team behind Brave must have spent countless hours researching Scotland's topography and the result is nothing short of stunning; vivid greens in the forest, stones visibly and beautifully weathered by time, vast expanses of crystal clear lakes and rivers.

Pixar's reputation with subtlety also remains delightfully intact, as the characters of the film exude changes in emotion that are almost barely visible onscreen - but powerfully resonant emotionally. And, also true to form, Pixar casts voice actors like it ain't no thang. Billy Connolly as the powerful but jovial King Fergus is as genuine as he is humorous, and Emma Thompson's turn as the perpetually formal Queen Elinor is equally appropriate. Kelly MacDonald imbues each of Merida's lines with a kind of brash sincerity that reflects everything about the character through her voice alone; never mind the pitch-perfect Pixar animation.

As I touched on before, I had some initial reservations about Brave. I have nothing against strong female characters or displays of independence and youthful rebellion. But if we've seen that once, we've seen that a million times and I feared that Pixar was hedging their bets with more tried-and-true plot devices rather risking further innovation. I'm glad to say my suspicions were largely unfounded and that while Brave certainly has a few notes of those cliches woven into the narrative, it ultimately transcends those rather tiresome plot devices in favor of a heartfelt story about the importance of strong familial bonds - namely between a mother and daughter.


Brave is a good movie, a really good movie. But not a great movie, in the sense that Monsters, Inc., Toy Story (and its sequels), and Up, are great movies. Perhaps this is merely my own cynicism talking, but Pixar has hollowed out a reputation for itself that almost defies the possible. And to give credit where credit is due, Pixar's track record is so littered with awards and truly timeless films that if they shut down operation now and never made another film they would still be - in my estimation - arguably the greatest film studio of all time. So when I say Brave is a good movie but not a great one, that's largely because of just how monumentally spectacular Pixar is as a studio. Their films have jaded me. So Brave felt like a worthy contender from a rival animation studio, rather than a continuance of the pitch-perfectionism that preceded it; Cars 2 notwithstanding.

Some of the action scenes and moments felt a little...manic. I realize it's meant to be a kids movie with lots of slapstick and silliness, and that didn't bother me too much. But every once in awhile it felt like the silliness of the action veered into the uncomfortably absurd; character bouncing up and down a little too wildly as they ran away, hyper-fast cuts between punches and strikes, wild-eyed hysteria rampant in a brawl that lasted just a bit too long. What might one day be dubbed in academia the "Pop-Tart Commercial Effect" or "Post Looney Tunes Syndrome." Not a true deterrent, just a minor gripe.


As I said before, Brave is a really really good movie, if not a Pixar-great movie. There's a measure of magic that's gone into previous Pixar films that I just felt was missing here. That's not to say the story doesn't involve magic (it does), but walking out of most Pixar films I've often felt transformed in a sense. And as I write this, I can hear the cascade of dissenting comments. "Your expectations are too high!" shouts the nameless disagree-er in my head. Fair enough, inner monologue. But I've come to have my expectations met and exceeded so often from Pixar films that I've lost my ability to not have incredibly high expectations for Pixar films.

Brave is still head and shoulders above your average Dreamworks Animation title, no question. And I was truly delighted to see that they didn't just opt to do a Scottish version of The Little Mermaid. But it's more decidedly a kids' movie than previous entries in Pixar's filmography. Remember the first five minutes of Up? In those moments Up tackled issues like infertility and death in the most heart-wrenching yet tender scene I can think of. Profoundly adult material made simple and gentle for little eyes and ears; it was utterly brilliant. Brave still addresses important issues like family and sacrifice, but it's not quite as profoundly moving as Up. Or the final moments of Monsters, Inc. ("Kitty!"). Or the scene where all the toys link hands in a final gesture of solidarity as they accept the inevitability...OF THEIR DEATH. I mean, Toy Story 3 was intense! Brave comes admirably close to those qualities but misses by just a teeny-tiny bit.

So ultimately Brave isn't quite on par with other Pixar films, in my humble opinion. But it's definitely a solid recovery from the less-than-impressive Cars 2. Maybe my relationship with Pixar has just finally graduated from the honeymoon phase, but since the honeymoon lasted so long I'm resistant to the changes I need to make in order to keep this thing alive.

But ya know what? I think we can make it work.