Sunday, June 10, 2012

My 'Brave' Review (and it's spoiler-free!)

Being a diehard fan of Pixar's films, I had high hopes for Brave. Even when it was still The Bear and the Bow, I decided that I would love it. This may seem like I set myself up with unfair expectations, but Pixar has consistently made heartwrenching film after heartwrenching film, always dishing out not only well-crafted stories, but stunning animation and hilarious scripts.

Needless to say, when I settled into my seat with popcorn in hand, I was anticipating a truly great film.

And I was painfully disappointed.

Brave let me down because it's story was not on par with other Pixar films. It just didn't have heart. This section of the review is about Story, but don't worry - it's spoiler-free. I'm not going to discuss any specific story details because I don't want to give any of it away, but also because it is hardly a story worth retelling. And that's just too bad from a great storytelling company like Pixar.

The set-up of the film is great. The very real family relationships are serious and deep. The mother-daughter relationship is immediately understood and dynamic. However, Brave becomes muddled in the second act. There is far too much reliance on coincidence, deus ex machina, and other storytelling shortcuts, like the over-manufactured flashback to Merida's childhood. Pixar takes the notion of “fairytale” too seriously, utilizing exposition, magic, and on-the-nose plot devices to the point where all I could do was shake my head in disbelief. The storyteller's hand is all too prevalent – which is even worse when the story you're telling isn't good. The characters aren't given enough time to make the change that they have to make.

The final act is as good as the first, tying up loose ends and showing the character transformation well (although the Queen's line “We have both changed,” is just depressingly bad, especially for Pixar). The climactic action is exciting and fun. But you just aren't all that invested in it, since the characters aren't developed enough.

While watching, you can definitely feel the hand of Disney's corporate hounds. The triplet boys are distressingly manufactured as comic relief and merchandising powerhouses. There is no reason at all to have them in this story, except to fulfill Eisner's silly little dated list of things that audiences (apparently) want.

But for all of those shortcomings, I'd still sit through the film again.

Yes, the story was Cars 2 material. Sure, it was frustrating to see such unforgivable tactics of audience manipulation, so underhanded it made me scan the credits for “Katzenberg”. But the movie is genuinely funny (with some surprise base humor thrown in, too), with good animation and acting, and a stunning setting.

The crowning achievement of Brave is its character design. From the King's massive bulk of a body to the witch's bug eyes to Merida's wild, red locks, the characters are a joy to watch. They're all unique and vibrant. The acting is subtle and realistic, yet also outlandishly slapstick and exaggerated at times, creating a surreal, dynamic mood. Which is exactly what you want from a fairytale – it's a believable world, with just a touch of unpredictable wonder. And physical humor that'd make even the great Buster Keaton let out a chuckle.

There's also genuine fear and suspense. There are visceral bear attacks, real sword fights, and a good deal of grounded violence. Although Pixar used its fair share of Disney tactics and fairytale plot devices, they certainly didn't attempt to sugarcoat any of the action. And that keeps Brave exciting, with more of that delicious unpredictability.

Brave is beautifully cinematic. The rolling hills of Scotland are lush and vivid. The action is big, and feels very real. The story will let you down, but no other part of the movie will. Especially if you see it on the big screen with booming sound. It creates a comprehensive, dreamlike world of staggeringly real action combined with slapstick and overstated movement. The jokes are funny, the characters are each a work of art in their own right, and it is entertaining.

But I'll still never be able to completely fill the void that its lack of Story has given me. I expected more from the creators of Toy Story, Finding Nemo, and Up. Pixar's dedication to Story over the years is what inspired me to become a storyteller, and it is just too bad that Brave couldn't carry the torch of Pixar's trademark heart.

See Brave when it comes out on June 22. But just know that it very well might be the end of an era.