Saturday, June 23, 2012

Film Review: "Brave" (***)

I realize that after a film as bad as "Cars 2", many were looking for Pixar's next to be a rousing and masterful return to form for the company that has put forth multiple genuine masterpieces in its relatively short lifespan. Apparently it's some great fault on the studio's part for not turning out another absolute masterpiece just two years after their last brilliant film. One can't comment positively on this film without mentioning the irritating barbs it's received over this past week. For one thing, you can't proclaim a studio's decline on the shortcomings of a single film. You can't even proclaim a director's, for that matter. People should remember pretty freshly that shortly after making "Hulk", Ang Lee went on to make something as great as "Brokeback Mountain".

"Cars 2" may be the "Hulk" in this situation, but saying "Brave" is the metaphorical equivalent to Lee's 2005 60s set romance could be an overstatement. It lands more favorably in relation to "Taking Woodstock", a film of Lee's where he wasn't attempting a masterpiece. He was doing something different. Similarly, "Brave" doesn't hit the same notes as has been known in Pixar's history, but it's not trying to. As a matter of fact, I can only think to applaud them for going so bravely outside their narrative and technical comfort zone to attempt something like this. It's not what you expected, but when has that ever been a bad thing?

From the moment "Disney Presents" appears on the screen in storybook gold lettering, I knew this was in part a love letter to animated princess films of the old days. The film tells the story of Merida, the princess of an ancient Scottish land who is not happy with the pretensions and expectations that role requires. She's adventurous and thrill seeking, which is something that you have seen plenty times before in a leading lady. Fortunately, this isn't the story of a badass archer girl taking charge of her fate for the better. We already got that in a very haphazard way from "The Hunger Games". The unexpected touch that Pixar gives this film is that the consequences to come reel forth from Merida's own single-minded sense of vanity.

Merida is placed into that rather unruly situation of betrothal against her will, a tradition that she blames on her mother for not breaking specifically for her. The film really is a family drama pushed onto a mythical background, and the relationships form as such. Queen Elinor does seem rather strict and oppressive at times upon her daughter, but it really does come from a point of character. Though not explicitly stated, one could infer that she went from being a commoner girl to becoming a princess, and takes much pride in that rising from humble beginnings. It really forms the way she treats Merida, and it serves as more than just a motivation of the story.

Of course tensions rise between these two opposing individuals, and Merida makes attempts to change her fate by way of magic. This is where the distinctive break in people's opinions comes in, with a twist that has been masterfully concealed in both trailers and descriptions. All I feel comfortable saying is that it puts both Merida and Elinor in a stressful situation where they have to work together to figure their way out of it. It turns the film into this fantasy adventure across beautiful locales of Scotland as they start to find an understanding of each other. It may feel like a turn for the childish, but it comes across honestly and rather affectionately at times.

In terms of theme, "Brave" was drastically mis-marketed, and even mis-titled. In its heart, the film is still absolutely "The Bear and the Bow", with its promotional title only serving to get more men into the theaters. Some Pixar films have a certain difficulty sticking to tone and theme, most specifically "Up" which doesn't find quite the most cohesive and subtle of ways to bring home its family friendly message of friendship. "Brave" tells a rather elaborate story of family bonds broken and repaired across wide expanses. The clans that come to compete for the hand of Merida are a hilarious, but still honest way of bringing these themes full circle.

Many of the characters do serve a majorly comedic purpose, most potently being Merida's brothers, a trio of rambunctious redheads who get up to plenty hilarious shenanigans throughout the film. There's a witch and her talking animal stooge that serve an even more overtly comedic influence, and at times goes a bit too far into the ridiculous. While the hilarity never goes unappreciated, and is necessary to alleviate the darkness and tension of their situation, sometimes it ventures just a tad too cartoony. This is where the strict perfectionism of directors like Brad Bird would come in handy, but by no means a total dealbreaker. There's rarely a moment in which you're unhappy about what's up on screen.

So much of what makes "Brave" more than a simply effort is the genuine emotion they pack into its major characters, most especially in the case of King Fergus. There's plenty that goes on behind his back that's between Merida, Elinor, and the audience, but never does the fact of us knowing the reality weaken what he believes is happening. There are moments of extreme emotion and distress that are given as much urgency as anything else that's going on. They carry us towards an intense climax that's amongst Pixar's most exciting. It's also a rousing return to the nighttime set final action sequence that's been rooted out of most modern action films in favor of bright daytime set climaxes that don't bring the same desperate intensity.

There's been some behind the scenes hoopla over the director of the film, which honestly had me painting the internet with anger against Mark Andrews before I genuinely experienced the film. I must express my honest apologies, because Andrews was the right man to bring "Brave" to term. He's shown such a strong visual sensibility already with "One Man Band", that while his detour with "John Carter" may have sparked doubt in his narrative abilities, he brings together one gorgeous piece of cinema. When Steve Jobs' name shows up in tribute during the credits, you know that this is the biggest technical tribute they could gave possibly given him.

All the barbs against the story are pretty much unfounded, since the narrative has genuinely been brought full in a rather beautiful way. There are moments that ring somewhat cute, but their not hateful in the slightest. They are visual and emotional touchstones that ring true to some classic Disney features, like the wilderness set "Bambi" and portions of both "Fantasia" films. Original director Brenda Chapman's influence has certainly not been lost in the mix, with honesty of her tale of mothers and daughters earning her full director's credit. When her name showed up in the credits, I was just warmed by the gesture of giving her credit for the story she originated.

"Brave" recalls to Pixar's beginnings of humble discoveries such as "Monsters Inc." and "Finding Nemo", and yet since they've come so far in such a short time this rings as some sort of massive disappointment. It still displays the company's genuine signature they've worked years to develop. Not a feat of perfection, but it's not an incomplete picture. All the gorgeous aspects come together, between the characters, theme, and lovely music composed by Patrick Doyle. I didn't expect to be defending it so strongly, but I had genuinely affectionate time with this film.

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