Pixar Animation Studios has created a consistently impressive body of work since Toy Story was unleashed upon the world in 1995.
That debut was immediately noteworthy because of its advanced computer graphics, but as the company hit its stride with Finding Nemo (2003) and The Incredibles (2004), it became apparent that Pixar was even more concerned with honing their stories and characters to the highest quality possible, to a point well beyond the dismissive “good for a kiddie flick” or “not bad for a cartoon.”
Cars was considered a dip, falling below their standard of quality, but upon reflection (and repeat viewing) it’s more comparable to A Bug’s Life or Monsters, Inc., enjoyable comedies, though lacking in emotional and thematic heft.
Pixar upped its game with its next four releases (Ratatouille, WALL-E, Up, Toy Story 3); each deserved placement among the best films of its respective year. Cars 2 was a greater disappointment, as much as anything because the brain trust behind the film failed to learn much from the shortcomings of the original.
And now we come to Brave, which is a good and ambitious film, yet betrays several weaknesses in its narrative structure that keep it from fulfilling its potential for greatness. Nonetheless, it stands up on its own as a charming and rambunctiously entertaining story with absolutely gorgeous animation.
Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald) grows up in the royal household of a kingdom in ancient Scotland. She is a princess, but the crown worn by her father Fergus (Billy Connolly) is meant to be passed on to the man she will marry, to be chosen from among the first-born sons of the other three kings (Craig Ferguson, Kevin McKidd, Robbie Coltrane) who rule in the land.
Naturally, Princess Merida is not happy about the prospect of an arranged marriage to a complete stranger, but she is even less enchanted by her mother Elinor (Emma Thompson), whose entire life is focused on making Merida’s day to day existence a nightmare. At least, that’s how Merida sees it: her mother enforces rules that restrict Merida’s personal freedom and trains her relentlessly for her future role as Queen. The young woman wants nothing more than to be free to live her life the way she chooses, without any rules or restrictions.
Oh, if only there were a spell that could get Merida’s mother off her back …
Quicker than you can hum “When You Wish Upon a Star,” Merida is heading deep into the forest and emerging with something that will change her mother, er, profoundly and unexpectedly. Let’s just say that it leads to some unbearable excitement before the credits roll.
It’s difficult, if not impossible, to shrug off the idea that Disney’s long-established “princess ideal” has rubbed off on Pixar. Brave is Pixar’s first film to feature a female protoganist, and yet choosing a princess seems to be a backwards step. Unlike Disney’s traditional efforts, or even the studio’s recent Tangled, however, the relationship between mother and daughter feels grounded on a very human, relatable scale.
Writer/director Brenda Chapman conceived the project as a dark fairy tale, and drew upon her own experiences with her daughter. Creative disagreements arose, however, and Mark Andrews took over as director in the midst of production. That’s not unusual with animated films, which have been re-shaped time and again through the long period it takes for production, but in the case of Brave, the film does not emerge as a unified whole.
There is a clash of sensibilities, the story takes several perplexing turns, and the characters are not well-defined. It’s especially disappointing that the extremely vital mother/daughter relationship takes a back seat right at the point in the narrative where it’s ripe for further exploration.
Still, the film is above average in quality, it’s very funny, and it’s refreshing in that it expands Pixar’s palette into even more adult territory. Maybe the next time or two out, the result(s) will be completely successful.
Brave opens wide across the Metroplex on Friday, June 22.