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A Pixar Fanboy’s Film Review: Brave

Brave-1

Cultural time pieces are a tough sell in animation.  Walt Disney Animation Studios (WDAS) tried it with “Lilo and Stitch” and it fell short along with all animated films post-Lion King. Even rival, Dreamworks Animation, gave it a go with “Prince of Egypt” and movie-goers’ wallets and money didn’t quite part like the Red Sea.  So when the magicians in Emeryville decided to take on their own cultural time piece with “Brave”, it’s cause for a little concern.

It’s blasphemous, even from a Pixar fanboy like myself, to have doubts.  Andrew Stanton and Brad Bird have transitioned in to live action film directors with “John Carter” and “Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol”.  Pixar also seemed to hit its climax when both “Up” and “Toy Story 3” both earned consecutive Oscar nods for Best Picture.  There’s no where to go, but down, right?  Last year, “Cars 2” was an amazing film for fans of the franchise, but as a standalone film, it’s the weakest link in Pixar’s resume.

Where’s my beef? Keep reading.

As I mentioned before, “Cars 2” is the weakest link of films from the stables in Emeryville, but it’s still an above average film.  Like all Pixar films, the characters are all memorable. Buzz Lightyear, Woody, Jessie, Sully, Mike Wazowski, Marlin, Dori, Lightning McQueen, and Tow-Mater are characters that my kids are crazy over.  My son’s first spoken words ever are “Ca-chow!” as he rocks his Lightning McQueen shirt while watching the original “Cars”.

Walt Disney theme park, California Adventure, further proves my point with their opening of Cars Land, a recreation of Radiator Springs. My point? Pixar builds memorable intellectual properties (IPs) that generate billions of dollars in revenue. Memorable IPs last long by creating characters that kids can gravitate towards after 90 minutes of being exposed to them. It’s in this area of memorable characters that “Brave” may have just fallen short despite the story’s heroine, Merida, and that flowing red hair. The operative word is “may”.  I can’t remember any of the other supporting characters’ names for the life of me, which is a rarity with Pixar films.

Animation: A

The full-length CG-animated film genre was started by Pixar with the original Toy Story.  Pixar has managed to up the animation ante not only with how much they can animate within the 3D character models (e.g., Buzz Lightyear’s eye brows from “Toy Story 2” to “Toy Story 3), but with their innovative art direction from film to film.  Without a doubt, they probably could’ve re-created the Scottish highlands in such great detail that would make Mel Gibson jealous and more psychotic. Nevertheless, the art style is backed into a corner because “Brave” is a time piece; therefore, there’s not much more innovation and art direction that would allow the animation to stick out.

In every film, Pixar likes to show off some crazy animation effects to show that they’re still at the top of the animation heap. In “Brave”, look no further than Merida’s free-flowing hair animations.  They’ve come a long way from the stiffness of Andy’s hair in the original “Toy Story”. There is one problem with their impressive hair demo though, it’s not the first time it’s been done. One can make the argument that “Brave” is in the same situation as “A Bug’s Life”.  Remember when Dreamworks’ Katzenberg stole the idea from Lasseter and rushed out their first CG project with “Antz”, it stole a bit of thunder from “A Bug’s Life”.  Two years ago, Walt Disney Animation Studios, which is ironically under the supervision of the same John Lasseter, released “Tangled”.  The emphasis on animating hair and blades of grass have already hit the market. If I had to choose which animated hair would be more memorable head-to-head, I’d probably side with Rapunzel. However, overall, Pixar’s animation in “Brave” trumps “Tangled” in every way.

Performances: A+

Pixar’s track record for voice talent is amazing, even with the inside joke of sneaking in John Ratzenberg in every one of their full length films. Performances of the key characters in the film, Princess Merida, Queen Elinor, and King Fergus are top notch.  Kelly Macdonald does a formidable job of voicing our lead character, even the tear-jerker moments. I hate crying in a theatre full of children. Academy Award Winner Emma Thompson voices the character of Queen Elinor and “Head of the Class” alum, Billy Connolly, voices King Fergus.  Every time I heard his voice I kept having flashes of his bad “arse” character from Boondock Saints.

The time piece of the Scottish highlands are supported by proper Scottish accents for major characters without any hint of Irish. There’s no American Robin Hood running around Great Britain in these highlands.

Musical Score: B

Legendary music composer, Patrick Doyle, is on hand to deliver a proper score with hints of Scottish bagpipes. While it’s not as memorable as his work for Kenneth Branagh, Doyle manages to put together scores that are related to Gaelic time pieces.  While not a Pixar staple of including songs in their films, they have a no singing character rule if you haven’t noticed over the years, there are some songs present.  They’re not as catchy as “You’ve Got a Friend In Me” by Randy Newman, but they’re still pretty solid.

Story: A

John Lasseter is proud of the fact that Pixar films, while at the top of computer animation, is all about story.  No one can argue with that point with 2 Best Picture nods in 2 of the last 3 Pixar films.  “Brave” continues the tradition with solid story-telling despite the fact that there’s no real established villain in the film.  There were some risky moments like animating many kilt-less Scottish “arses” as comedy, but it won’t go unnoticed.  As an aside, at least they’re out in the open with it and not sneaking it in there in Disney fashion.  The Little Mermaid cover and a single Jessica Rabbit frame, remember that?

Pixar’s ability to make it out of the film with no true villain is an accomplishment.  The villain is simply the set of oppressing circumstances and cultural values that are found throughout the world.  Arranged marriages, expectations of women, and a mother-and-daughter dynamic that’s very complex.  Pixar could’ve easily followed tradition and made the bear-carving witch (reminiscent of Rapunzel’s mom in “Tangled”) our film’s major villain, but kept the story simple.

Pixar should also be commended by not feeling obligated to add romantic elements to the story that would’ve cheapen the character development they’ve accomplished with Merida.  It would’ve been easy for Pixar to add the romantic elements since the story does deal with suitors trying to woo Princess Merida. Being a Disney film, I expected romantic elements from the film, which left a weird vibe when it didn’t happen.  In retrospect, it was awesome that they didn’t go down that route.  Kudos to Pixar for not following that Disney formula and making the story truly about a young woman and her right to choose her own fate.

Even more genius on Pixar’s part, all of the story elements found in the previews were quickly discarded at the beginning of the film, allowing for an experience that was just guided by the story and not by my mind expecting specific things to happen.

Overall B

With “Brave”, the Lasseter crew in Emeryville has released another solid entry while grooming Mark Andrews with his first gig in the lead chair.  Pixar fanboys like myself will attempt to rank it against their other full-length films, but that would be unfair since it’s Pixar’s first real time piece.  No, “Incredibles” isn’t a time piece. The backdrop hinders any attempt to innovate the art direction and the animation since we’re back in locales provided by Highlander and Braveheart. What is great about “Brave” when not being compared to other films is that it’s a solid story.  Pixar doesn’t follow any of the classic cliche formulas of adding convenient romantic elements and providing a central villain.  The voice acting and the animation is vintage Pixar. Overall, it’s worth forking out the cash and watching it on the big screen.

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