Saturday, June 16, 2012

Review: Pixar's Brave Plays it Safe.

By this stage there should be no question in anyone's minds that Pixar can produce exquisitely rendered and thoughtfully animated films, and their newest, Brave, is certainly no exception. It's a visual feast with the utmost attention to detail and a vibrant cast of likeable characters who have been vividly brought to life. But, beyond that, at the core of every great Pixar film is an intelligence, a wit, and a warmth. They have an effortless breeziness about them, they're quirky, fun, contemporary, and often make us laugh or cry when we're really not expecting too. This is why they have such a wide reach - they are the rare animated films that truly do appeal to all ages.

So going into Brave, the expectations are set very, very high... 

Is Brave an instant classic? Join me after the jump and we'll find out.

It's both a blessing and a curse for Brave that you go into the film not really knowing what it's about, which is either surprising or disappointing depending on your expectations. The trailers protect the crucial event that kicks off the second act and I won't spoil it here, but I will say that the story presented is deceptively simple. There's not a whole lot of meat on Brave - it's a fairy tale/legend that could just as easily be presented as a 20 minute short. 

The "padding" (although I'm hesitant to reduce it to that) is equal parts character study (as I said, the character animation is stunning and much time is spent exploring how certain characters move, react and adapt) and equal parts slapstick comedy. Pixar's first period piece, this is easily one of the driest narratives we've been presented to date, and the constant slapstick (especially in the first act) at times feels like a clumsy attempt to alleviate the angst. 

Without giving away the "twist", Brave is essentially a tale about a plucky princess (Pixar's first heroine) who is dissatisfied with her station in her life, and the expectations put upon her, and craves change. As likeable as Princess Merida is, I can't help feeling that we've seen this story far too many times before. There must be more than this provincial life? The comparisons to Beauty and the Beast don't end there. 

And now we're getting to the core of my hesitation with Brave. Jettison your usual Pixar expectations, because it has little in common with Up, Wall-E, The Incredibles, Ratouille, and certainly not the Toy Stories. Brave is very much a traditional Disney film, in the tradition of Beauty and the Beast of The Little Mermaid. And it's a solid film, worthy of that comparison, but will it have that wide appeal of Pixar's previous offerings? I'm not sure it will.

If we pretend that Cars 2 didn't happen (and I haven't seen it), then Brave is the first time that I watched  a Pixar movie in the cinema and thought, "This is a kid's movie." And it's a solid kid's movie (although I felt that the even the child audience's attention wandered at times) but Pixar movies usually transcend. If you're an adult animation aficionado then I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it - and you were going to see it anyway, and you will be gobsmacked by how beautiful it is - but my Dad is not going to sit through this film, and neither is yours probably. It's a good film - it really is - but even I had moments of, "Wait... why did I rush out to see this Disney princess movie?"

By the end of it we've predictably learned that individuals should be allowed to follow their hearts... but we knew that, right? Am I wrong in thinking that in our incredibly privileged parts of the world that this is a fundamental truth taken as a given? And in that sense, I find Brave to be incredibly safe. A story beautifully told, but it lacks that Pixar spark of ingenuity. I think the great Pixar films are mildly subversive. Brave is not. Instead it's a far prettier version of ideas we've been served a thousand times before.

But it's still really good. And there's my bind. Because throughout it all we're still watching masters ply their craft.

Mulling over it afterwards with my girlfriend, the best analogy I could come up with is that it's like seeing a really great guitarist play a pretty good song that everybody knows. And right in the middle she breaks into an amazingly extended solo and we're all blown away by how undeniably skilled she is. She elaborates, and embellishes in a way that not many people could match. We're impressed more by the skill than we are by the song. 

The parts I genuinely loved are impossible to talk about without spoiling it for you. Let's just say that the mother and daughter bond at the centre of the film is surprising and engaging. And for me, it's some of those quieter moments that are the most effective. See it if you have children. See it if you're an animation fan. 

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