Even a lesser PIXAR movie is still pretty good, as proved by Brave. The most impressive aspect of the movie by far is Merida’s hair, which flounces and flutters with wild abandon, a great metaphor for Merida, the willful Scottish princess at the center of the story. Of course, if you’re the director, you don’t hope that reviews spend the whole time praising the animation of the hair. (But huge kudos to PIXAR’s incredible technical animation team!)
And who is the director of Brave? Initially, it was directed by Brenda Chapman, a longtime animation story artist and director. (She did story on Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King and directed Prince of Egypt for Dreamworks.) At some point she was removed from the film, which was called The Bear and the Bow, and Mark Andrews stepped in. (Comic book writer Steve Purcell also gets co-director credit.) The DGA normally forbids more than one person being credited as director, so it unusual to see credit doled out so generously in this category.
Andrews is dynamic individual — witness the bonus feature on the John Carter Blu-ray/DVD Combo which follows him around as he directs the 2nd Unit. No one has yet done a post-mortem of what he brought to the film vs. what Chapman brought. I might guess that the slapstick elements, especially those involving Merida’s triplet brothers as well as the cartoony fights would be in his wheelhouse. Those are all great, but where Brave doesn’t quite go full monty for me are the emotional beats.
At its core, Brave is a mother-daughter story. Neither the title Brave nor The Bear and the Bow quite captures that, although at least the latter gives it the ring of fairy tale. The movie’s fairy tale logic — will o’ the wisps lead the way at key points; Merida must sew the tapestry but also wrap it around her mother at sunrise — is never well-established, but I’m willing to go with it. I think the larger issue is that the main character is not the one who becomes a bear, just the rest of the family that she dislikes. It’s more of a horror premise than a fairy tale one.
There are a number of speeches in the film that are supposed to be moving, but they did not move me like the opening of Up or end of Dumbo does. Walt Disney was shameless in his use of sentimental story elements (“for every laugh, a tear”) but he always made sure they were well-grounded. But Brave is less indebted to Walt Disney’s story structures than two of my favorite Disney movies that were made outside his supervision: The Sword in the Stone and Robin Hood. I see clear parallels between the anachronistic jokes of Merlin in Sword and the witch in Brave (who seems like she could have been much, much funnier). And the scene where Merida looses arrows for her own hand owes a clear debt to the looney archery tournament sequence in Disney’s Robin Hood.
Knowing the directors-switched-midstream background of the film, it’s easy to analyze it as schizophrenic. (The trailer, with an action half and a lyrical half, is unquestionably schizoid.) But I think that is not a fair assessment of the film I saw, which was plenty coherent and exceedingly entertaining. The alasses I have about the fair lass of Brave is that there is unquestionably room for improvement in the story and the detail of the world. PIXAR’s legendary “brain trust” story process, which supposedly won’t let a tale through until it has been honed to a fine point has not lived up to its own (ridiculously) high standards.
I have yet to see Cars 2, but my faith is hardly shaken in PIXAR, which Brave proves still has incredibly talented people doing amazing original things while also often making fantastic sequels. (And the short that plays before this film, “La Luna,” is simple and beautiful.) Brave is head-and-shoulders above Tangled, for example, but I just didn’t like the story as much as Dreamworks’ own Scottish fable, How to Train Your Dragon.
Dreamworks does great work in PIXAR’s shadow, and may yet emerge from it. Even Nickelodeon, with its Oscar-winning Rango threatens PIXAR’s artistic dominance. All I know is that PIXAR’s high standards are responsible for all this great competition and we as audiences win. I hope some of the tepid responses to Brave spur PIXAR — and John Lasseter’s Disney Animation in a broader context — onto better and better things.
A few other random notes: Was anyone else bothered by the lip sync on this film? Seems like PIXAR’s technical R&D would be better spent on mastering making lip movements look less rubbery than the hair and water effects. Patrick Doyle, whose score for Henry V is still one of my all time favorites, does a nice job here and almost fooled me in a couple of the emotional moments. The pop songs, though, were awful.