(A quick aside before I begin my review proper. It’s been a relatively busy weekend for me. After having essentially all of last week off, I actually worked Friday and Sunday, more or less the whole day. And on Saturday, I went to the movies with my little sister and her roommate [there will be two movie reviews in quick succession since I allowed myself to get backed up like a dumbass]. We went to go see the new Evil Dead movie. More on that in it’s review. Anyways, I watched 2012’s Best Animated Feature Oscar winner, Brave, in the wee hours of Friday morning so forgive me if this review is shorter/hazier than what you usually expect from me).
When Don Bluth’s films disappeared from the public eye by the end of the 90s, Pixar was there to pick up the slack with increasingly thematically complex and mature children’s entertainment. If films like All Dogs Go to Heaven and An American Tail were the definitive children’s movies of the 1980s, Disney had a brief resurgence in the 1990s with Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, and The Lion King before Pixar arose from their umbrella to define modern American animation. Toy Story 3, Up, and The Incredibles aren’t just the best children movies of the last decade; they’re some of the best movies period of the last ten years. The first 15 minutes of Up is arguably the most emotionally powerful sequence in the last five years of cinema. One almost has to pity Pixar at this point because they have set the bar so impossibly high for themselves. Any thing short of making me curl up in a ball and making me sob uncontrollably becomes a disappointment. 2012’s Brave is a good film, but it’s high on the adventure and low on the emotional impact that has grown to define the best of the Pixar experience.
Following the well-trod path of rebellious princesses unhappy with the arranged marriages set up by their parents, Brave forges its own identity with a cast over-flowing with memorable characters and a stunning visual sensibility. Merida (Choke‘s Kelly MacDonald) is the bushy-haired tomboy daughter of the boisterous Scottish King Fergus and the strict but loving Queen Elinor (Stranger than Fiction‘s Emma Thompson). Merida would rather be in the woods with her horse Angus shooting her bow and arrow and exploring the wilderness than learning how to be a proper princess. And when she learns that her mother and father have arranged suitors from the three most powerful clans in the kingdom to seek her hand in marriage, she quickly runs away where she encounters a witch in the forest which grants her a wish to change her fate. And clearly, that wish comes with a price.
Let me get my biggest compliment towards the film out of the way because it is a massive reason why this score isn’t lower (that and Kelly MacDonald’s performance and the movie’s consistent sense of humor but I’m getting ahead of myself). Brave is one of the most beautifully animated films that I’ve ever watched. Apparently, Pixar had to completely remake their animation software (which they had never done before; it had simply been upgrades not a complete overhaul) for Brave and it shows. While the character animations are par for the course for Pixar (though the hair, obviously, is exceptional in this film), the consistent scenic panoramas of the Scottish countryside are just stunning. I could watch this movie with the sound off at times because it was just that gorgeous. The film never stopped stunning me with its sheer beauty.
And Kelly MacDonald remains a criminally under-appreciated talent (though her recent turn on Boardwalk Empire seems to be raising her level of American pop culture infiltration). Still, for anyone who’s seen Trainspotting, Choke, or The Girl in the Cafe (an indie film that my dad weirdly really enjoys), you know she’s a supremely talented actress. You only hear her voice in this film, but she does a wonderful job of bringing Merida to life (although she sounds very grown-up in her opening narration though I forgot about that as the film progressed). Emma Thompson is just one of the greatest actresses of her peer group, and she brought a wonderfully subtle interpretation to Queen Elinor. And there was a whole host of great performances although another shout out would be for Harry Potter‘s Julie Walters as the Witch whose powers have a higher price than Merida could have expected.
The film could also be very funny. Merida has triplet little brothers, and they are perpetual comic motion machines. There was barely a second where they were on screen where they didn’t have me laughing my ass off (and the film used them for some surprisingly dirty jokes for a kids’ movie). There’s a brilliant set piece halfway through the film where Merida has to sneak something out of the castle (I can’t say what for fear of spoiling some of the major twists in the film) and the triplets serve as the distraction. It could have came out of a classic Benny Hill routine for sheer slapstick value. And it’s a shame that the Witch had such small time on screen because she was without question the liveliest and most hysterical part of the whole film.
Sadly, the the film’s plot has been done to death. How many Disney princesses (of which Merida is certainly one although she may be the first Disney/Pixar princess) have been upset about being forced to marry someone they don’t want to? Way too god damn many is the correct answer, and there’s not much that Brave does differently (well, there’s one big thing at the end but I can’t say for fear of spoilers, yet again). Merida just seems like the cliche tomboy fantasy princess, and it’s only her mother, Elinor, that seems to break the major genre conventions. Up until the film’s final climactic encounters, Brave failed to elicit even the most remote emotional reaction/sympathy, although the final moments did wind up bringing a tear to my eye. Ultimately, Brave is a film about the relationship between mothers and daughters, and perhaps that is why I failed to connect to it. That would be a fair argument.
I’ll draw this to a close since I have to review Evil Dead tonight (it’s now one of a handful of remakes I’ve reviewed where I’ve also reviewed the original but I’ll talk about that in my Evil Dead review). Let me simply say that it isn’t that I didn’t enjoy Brave. It is a passable and highly enjoyable kid’s movie. However, Pixar has trained me to expect more from their movies. They have trained me to expect films that are as enjoyable for the kids in the audience as they are for the grown-ups. Brave fails to meet that standard. However, as far as children’s adventure movies go, Brave is an exciting and often frighteningly dark tale. One only wishes that the emotional stakes had been higher.
Final Score: B