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Monday, August 6, 2012

Brave

OK, onto this week's films.


With the critical failure of Cars 2 under their belts, the mostly unimpeachable Pixar have decided to strike out in a fairly different direction before once again returning to more familiar ground with Monsters University. Brave is a departure for Pixar, not only because it's one of their few films to primarily be built around "regular" human beings, but because it is, at its core, a fairly straightforward fairy tale.

Around half of Pixar's films are based on high concepts that have resulted in the brilliance of Toy Story (what if your toys were really alive when you aren't looking?), the charm of Monsters Inc (those monsters under your bed? they're real but you're just a job to them) and the unfortunate misfire of Cars (imagine a world populated by sentient cars and, er, that's it) and the other half usually put a bit of a spin on their subject matter, as best personified by the superhero family drama of The Incredibles. Those expecting these kinds of twists in Brave will undoubtedly walk away disappointed - and that's if they don't try and see genre bending when there really isn't any.

The film's story reads like it comes directly from an old storybook: Merida, a young princess who has been raised by her mother to be nothing more than the next queen of the realm, tries to rebel against her situation by messing with the kind of volatile magic that virtually comes with a warning label to "be careful what you wish for". What follows is a tale that is about as traditional as Pixar gets: there's a hero's quest, magic sprites, an old witch and a moral about the importance of communication to tie it all up. There's not even anything particularly new about the idea of the hero being a girl who would rather be an independent, fully formed human being than a demure wife, forced to live up to some pre-prescribed gender roles. Post-Buffy, Ripley and Katniss Everdeen, there's nothing at all new about ass-kicking feminist role-models.


What there is though, is consistency. Brave isn't brilliant but it is consistently good and, unlike Up or Wall E, has a firm grip on its target audience and its tone throughout. It never reaches the highs of the "Married Life" montage in Up, nor of the first half hour of Wall E but it never has those films' notable drop in quality either. It also is street ahead of Cars in that it clearly knows what age group its aimed at and doesn't try unsuccessfully to work for young kids and middle agers at the same time, instead keeping its cross hairs squarely on the slightly older kid audience.

Brave has a darker colour palette than any Pixar film to date - which means the 3D is really unwelcome this time - and it is noticeably scarier and edgier than your typical Pixar fare. This isn't Chico and Rita or Perfect Blue, of course - it's still very much a kids film - but it does earn its PG rating. It's also interesting to note that, while it's certainly true that there's nothing original about the feminist twist to the "Disney Princess" of the film, Merida is actually one of Pixar's more complex characters.

As most of Pixar's films are aimed at very young audiences, there is a simple black and white morality that is largely applied to the characters in their films: the good guys are very good, the bad guys very (if ultimately innocuously) bad. Merida is obviously the film's hero as she is smart, independent, headstrong and,well, brave, but she's also very clearly selfish, callous and heedlessly stubborn. We're not talking vast and complicated levels of morality here, but Merida is far more flawed a creation than your average Pixar or Disney hero.

This alone may well leave many people with the feeling that Brave isn't anywhere near as likable or as charming as a Pixar film usually is, but I for one appreciate their willingness to push themselves out of their comfort zone. After Cars 2, it was clear that Pixar needed to try something a bit different and, though the end result isn't leaps and bounds better than Cars 2, it's certainly a more respectable outing and is every bit as fresh as Cars 2 was stale.  

It has a typically great voice cast, stunning animation and a witty - if not exactly hysterically funny - script and it's good to see Pixar branching out once again, but Brave isn't up to the studio's best work. And, if I'm being honest here, it isn't a patch on Dreamworks' similarly Scottish-set and Craig-Ferguson-featuring How to Train Your Dragon. Still, don't be too despondent about the state of Pixar, How to Train Your Dragon is far and away the best Dreamworks animated film this side of the first Shrek and, though Brave is far from Pixar's finest, it shows that they still have plenty up their sleeves and are still willing to try new and different things. Not a must see, then, but definitely a should see film.

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