Thursday, June 28, 2012

Brave - Theatrical Review




BRAVE



Release Date: June 22, 2012

Pixar had a lot of hard work ahead of them to make amends for the eternally bland travesty that was Cars 2 and Brave seemed to be the thing they needed to get them back on track. Well, it certainly is much better than last years offering but I still can't help but wander when, if ever, we will get the Pixar back that used to hit it out of the park each time they were up to bat.



Review Vital Stats:
Theater: El Capitan Hollywood
Time: 7:00 pm June 23, 201
Projector Type: Digital 3D
Film Rating: PG
Film Runtime: 1 hr 33 min
Studio: Walt Disney Pictures

Biases:
Loves: Pixar, strong female lead characters
Likes: Disney
Neutral: Frantic and consistent comedy relief
Hates: Extreme tonal shifts that don't compliment each other
Fact: Brave had a total of three directors


Disney/Pixar's Brave has a lot riding on its shoulders. Not only is it the first original, non-sequel film they have made since 2009 (yep, it's been a while), but it is also the first time the studio has had a female director on one of their features as well as a female lead character. Brave is also unfortunately saddled with the duty of restoring the Pixar name to its former greatness after last years abysmal merchandise tie-in cash cow, but artistically bankrupt Cars 2. That is a whole lot of pressure to be put on any film, but that was its fate which is ironically enough the main theme of the film itself. I had mild to high expectations for Brave, I wasn't looking for it to wow me or redefine animation. I just wanted it to signify that Pixar was back on track and that they were returning to what made their films so great in the first place, original and insightful stories coupled with state of the art animation and filled to the brim with memorable characters that would live on forever in the great tradition of every other Disney classic. Brave certainly lives up to most of those expectations but sadly stumbles a bit its execution.

I will come clean and say that I really didn't know what to expect from Brave in regards to its story. Those early trailers were tonally all over the place. Was it a comedy or was it an epic journey? There is nothing wrong with being either or both even, but the failing of that trailer spilled over into the finished film for me as well. Brave was a very perplexing film experience for me, it features one of the strongest willed female characters in any animated feature I have ever seen in Merida, a young woman who has aspirations of becoming a warrior and leading her own life as she sees fit. She is constantly at odds with her mother who wants her to follow tradition and give her hand in marriage to one of the local clan leader's sons which is in stark contradiction to her passion to be a free spirit and do what she wants. Merida is the epitome of female empowerment and a character whom is very easy to root for as she and her mother have a battle of wits to determine which one will overcome the others stubbornness. In short, I really liked and came to care about Merida and her well being.

Merida is a very determined and skilled young woman.

What I found so baffling about creating such an easily identifiable and relatable female heroine like Merida is how the film so quickly snuffs out all that character development for one of the lamest mid-story shifts (I hesitate to call it a twist) in any film in recent memory. All of Merida's arguments and conflicts that showed her strength of will are rendered mute. What once was a tale about a young woman being true to who she believes she is becomes this cautionary tale about comprimises and learning when to let go of your dreams in order to satisfy the greater good. While I don't think there is anything inherently wrong with a story about a family learning to bond, I just don't think that the arc THIS particular story takes is true to who that spunky young lass Merida was during those first thirty to forty minutes.

It will be nearly impossible for me to talk about my issues with the film without going into heavy spoilers so I will have to diverge into spoiler territory fairly soon here so I can make my case as to why I found Brave so darn cowardly. Before I get there though I want to talk about the many positives about the film, namely the brilliant characters and lavish animation that Pixar is world famous for. I have already spoken my peace about Merida, she is fantastic addition to the Disney/Pixar line-up with the voice work by Kelly McDonald being equally as engaging as the character is written. Billy Connolly as Fergus is clearly in his element and Emma Thompson as Elinor is just splendid. The entire voice cast is simply perfection  which is something Pixar has always excelled at and something I still love about them to this day. They cast who fits the character, not someone who will have their name plastered all over the poster...ahem, Dreamworks.

Merida's parents want her to fulfill her role and keep to tradition.

The animation itself is something that I once again feel is almost unnecessary to even mention. It is pure digital perfection. The art style, the environments, the character design and the impressive tech powering it all is just sublime and helps create a very real and authentic animated 3D world. Pixar is a master of their craft and although other animation studios have been trying their hardest to catch up to them, they always find another way to up the stakes with each new film they release. I can't imagine even the most jaded soul out there saying this film is anything other than just drop dead gorgeous. About the only thing anyone could ever complain about is the art style itself which is just a matter of taste and something that can't ever truly be critiqued in any meaningful way. I think it is safe to say that if you are in the market for a beautiful 3D animated experience, then you can do no better than Brave at the moment.

SPOILERS AHEAD, YE BE WARNED!

Alright, enough stalling, let's get into some spoilers here shall we? So beware, major spoilers from here on out. If you want to check out my final thoughts on the film without anything being spoiled then go ahead and jump down to that final paragraph cause it is about to get real. So, my expectations for Brave were fairly simple given its promotional campaign, "If you could change your fate, would you?", a myriad of images depicting Merida as this strong young woman with the courage to challenge her fate and a very deceptive title (it doesn't mean what you think it does). Not knowing exactly where the story would go, I had surmised I would be in store for this coming of age tale about a princess who would go against the grain and forge her own destiny. While I can't rightly say it didn't stay true to most of that, it certainly threw a curve ball my way that caught me off guard from which I never truly recovered from by the end.

These are only a couple of her lucky suitors.

You see, Brave isn't really about a rebellious teen trying to change her fate at all...well, it sort of is, but it isn't about her succeeding, at least not in the way you might be expecting. Brave in its simplest terms is about a mother and daughter learning to accept each other for who they are and forming an eternal bond by overcoming whatever obstacles are placed in their way. My problem pertains to one obstacle in particular. There comes a point in the film just after Merida storms out of the castle and rides off into the woods where she comes across a small cottage with this quirky old lady within. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to determine this old lady is a witch and what she offers Merida is a way to not so much change her fate, but to changer her mother. The witch's solution is a potion she concocts on the spot that Merida must give to her mother. This is the point where Brave lost me, everything from this point forward was make-it or break-it time. Either you were on board with where it went or you were confounded by this sudden left turn it takes. Guess which one I was?

The potion and witch were not what lost me though, what they eventually did to change the direction of the narrative did however. When Merida gives her mother that potion...well, I don't know exactly what I expected to happen. Perhaps her personality would change or maybe it was some sort of ploy by the witch to gain control over her mother, either way I wasn't quite prepared for the reality of it. Let's just say that when the Queen, Merida's mother, suddenly transforms into a bear, I kind of had a bad reaction to it. That's right, she turns into a bear. The entire second half of the movie deals with Merida trying to fix what she did as she turns her focus from herself towards her responsibilities for her actions. The introduction of the mother/bear storyline is just so complex with how it is weaved into the fabric of the overall story that I find it very difficult to explain exactly what it is about it that turned me sour to the whole ordeal.

Their conflict is the fuel which this film's fire burns.

Let me put you in my mindset leading up to this reveal. We meet Merida as a child who witnesses her father being mauled by a bear, she then later becomes this free spirit who absolutely loathes doing all of her lady-like duties and revels in any chance she gets to go out and shoot some arrows (of which she is extremely talented at), she is spunky, displays a real desire to prove that she doesn't need to be tied down to a husband, is told a story about how bad things go when tradition is broken, has numerous heated arguments with her mother about her "fate" as a Princess to be married off and finally takes matters into her own hands and knocks off all her suitors by beating them at their own game. By this point the film had done a marvelous job of setting Merida up as this character who needed to prove to everyone, especially her mother, that she is destined for more than the life of a Princess. So when she rode off into that forest in search of her destiny, the last thing I expected was her to return home IMMEDIATELY with a potion that would turn her mother into a bear. Do you see the disconnect there? Even a little? They undercut all this great dramatic tension they were building up to by having Merida suddenly become this girl who made a horrible mistake and spends the rest of the film trying to make amends for it.

Now before I start getting comments on how the mother turning into a bear was intricate to the overall plot, I want to state that yes, I get that. The story about the four brothers and what happened to the bad one, the witch, the potion, the added layers of Fergus trying to kill the bear who maimed him and mistaking his wife (now a bear) for the same creature, Merida learning that perhaps being so reckless and only thinking of herself can cause problems bigger than her own and finally that the Queen comes to an understanding with Merida and accepts her and decides not to force anything she doesn't want on her, all that is made possible by the conceit that the Queen turns into a bear because of Merida's recklessness. I get ALL of that, but my concern is how NONE of that is true to who Merida was when we first met her. At the beginning of Brave she is this strong willed young woman and by the end she is this little girl who made a horrible mistake that made her realize that perhaps she was wrong to go against tradition and that maybe she should not have any aspirations of her own. She comprimises herself and her dreams because she made a stupid mistake. I'm sorry, but that is one of the worst outcomes for any hero/heroine of any movie I have ever seen. Can you imagine what would happen in the original Star Wars had Luke Skywalker actually heeded Uncle Owen and Aunt Baru's warnings about going off and finding his destiny? He would be burnt to a crisp, that's what.

Merida is about to discover what happens when you change your fate.

If they wanted to make a story about a mother and daughter bonding then they shouldn't have made the daughter's argument so compelling and the mother's so infuriatingly narrow minded. I can't imagine anyone finding solace in the idea that they should comprimise their ideals and goals just because they make a mistake or two on the road towards fulfilling them. What kind of lesson is this movie trying to give to our youth, that it's OK to just give up? Why not just have a message plastered on the screen telling all young girls, "Hey, you know those dreams you have? Well, if you mess up then just forget about them." I can imagine that different people will have different reactions to what transpires during the second half of the film, most will find something to identify with and it will hook them in. A lot of mother's and daughters out there will find plenty of similarities with the relation between Merida and her mother and will love it for how well it tells THAT particular story. For someone like me, who loves stories about a woman fighting for her right to choose her own fate, well...this movie just wasn't meant for me despite its first half leading up to that conclusion and being derailed.

END SPOILERS

I suppose my biggest issue with the film overall is just how disjointed its first and second halves are from one another. There is plenty to like from both ends, heck I even got a little misty eyed during the finale which was mostly due to Pixar's expertise in creating fantastic characters and infusing them with real emotional characteristics that are easily identified with. But the two halves just didn't make a satisfying whole for me in the end. I love a good twist as much as the next guy (and it was a miracle they kept that twist out of all the trailers for the film), but if that twist completely undermines what came before it, then it is a failure in my eyes. I wouldn't go so far as to say I disliked Brave because I most certainly did not, I had a good time with it and I believe most families will love it and not even notice or care about my own personal issues with its narrative. They will most likely be too busy laughing, crying and marveling at the beautiful scenery in every inch of every frame. I understand that I will most likely stand alone with my disdain for where the film goes in its second half (which I think I have made it more than clear where I am coming from), so I will give Brave a recommendation based on how I feel most will approach the film. It may not end up being an instant classic like films from their past, but I still suggest that if you want to see Pixar redeem themselves for last years travesty Cars 2, then don't even hesitate and...

CHECK IT OUT


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