Friday, June 22, 2012

Brave: Loses its way

Brave (2012) • View trailer
3.5 stars. Rating: PG, and somewhat generously, for rude humor and considerable scary action
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 6.22.12

All Pixar animated films are lush, impeccably mounted productions — every backdrop fine-tuned to the height of available imaging technology, every scene timed to comic perfection — and Brave is no different.

With her disapproving mother and doting father looking on, far right,
Merida demonstrates archery skills that are far superior to all the other
clan lords and their sons: from left, Lord Macintosh and Young
Macintosh, Wee Dingwall and Lord Dingwall, and Lord MacGuffin
and Young MacGuffin.
The long, long ago and far, far away Scottish Highlands setting has a verdant ambiance granted even greater verisimilitude by the careful application of 3D cinematography; the resulting full-immersion sensation is as breathtaking to us, in these early years of the 21st century, as William Garity’s ground-breaking multi-plane camera work was for audiences of Disney’s early 1930s and ’40s animated classics.

The characters here are fun and feisty, often exaggerated for comic relief, and led by Merida, a resourceful and headstrong heroine who is voiced fabulously by Kelly Macdonald. Merida’s pluck, determination and stubborn defiance of tradition are matched only by her flaming, flowing red tresses: as much a part of her presence and personality as her oh-so-familiar teenage angst.

All the elements are in place ... except one.

The most important one.

However well Brenda Chapman’s original story may have flowed, as first conceived, it has become something of a mess in the hands of screenwriters Mark Andrews, Steve Purcell, Irene Mecchi and Chapman herself, along with (no doubt) the uncredited participation of many, many more Pixar staffers. The result plays less like a cohesive, thematically consistent narrative and more like a committee effort calculated to hit all the essential demographic targets.

In the mid-1970s, before attempting his first thriller, physician Robin Cook thoroughly analyzed then-best-selling novels to determine what they had in common; he then sat down and wrote Coma, which incorporated what he had learned. Despite reading like a soulless product, it became a smash hit and kick-started Cook’s second career as a successful author.

Brave has that same sense of having been crafted from a laundry list of “what works” ... which is a shame. Pixar’s best films are truly original creations that establish their own trends; Brave, in contrast, too often echoes bits and pieces from other sources.

Indeed, a major plot point is lifted wholly — and quite disappointingly — from a 2003 Disney (non-Pixar) animated film, which I’ll not identify in order to avoid a major spoiler. But the prominence of this unexpected detour sends Brave into a direction rather at odds with its premise, while also compromising the integrity of Merida’s character to a somewhat unfortunate degree.

A brief prologue reveals that, even as a wee lass, Merida lacks the refinement and, ah, girlish composure that would be expected of the first-born daughter of King Fergus (Billy Connolly) and Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson). Merida is much more passionate about archery, an interest her father encourages by presenting the girl with a bow on her birthday ... much to the displeasure of his wife.

Flash-forward about a decade, and Merida has grown into a bonny lass; she now has three impish little brothers — identical triplets Harris, Hubert and Hamish — who live to gorge themselves on sweets stolen by any means necessary. Merida loves nothing more than jumping atop her beloved Clydesdale, Angus, and plunging through the surrounding highland forests, where she has erected a maze-like obstacle course laden with hanging targets designed to further test her already impressive archery skills.

This is a joyous, exhilarating sequence that draws cheers each time one of Merida’s arrows hits its mark. It’s also by far the most exciting scene in the film, and therefore represents something of a mistake by co-directors Chapman and Mark Andrews. They set up expectations here, with respect to Merida’s archery skills, which aren’t fulfilled as the story builds to its eventual climax.

Because — and this is completely unacceptable— the eventual third-act crisis isn’t solved by anything having to do with Merida’s archery prowess. Can you imagine author Suzanne Collins foolishly deciding to take Katniss’ bow away from her, midway through The Hunger Games?

Anyway, Merida’s life takes a calamitous turn when she learns that she’s intended to wed the first-born son of one of three other unruly co-rulers of this land: massive Lord MacGuffin (Kevin McKidd); surly Lord Macintosh (Craig Ferguson), forever bedecked in blue war paint; and cantankerous, quick-tempered Lord Dingwall (Robbie Coltrane). Such a planned betrothal is traditional, Queen Elinor explains; the headstrong Merida sees only that her life is being ruined.

It’s the familiar generation gap writ large, and made worse by the fact that, deep in his heart, King Fergus wants his daughter to be happy ... and Merida knows this. But the prim and proper Elinor, whose mere presence can calm the rowdiest Scottish warrior, insists upon decorum and custom.

Merida will have none of this. First she embarrasses the other clan lords (quite stylishly, it should be acknowledged). Then she has one of those calamitous arguments with her mother, with both women saying and doing things that they’ll have cause to regret. At which point Merida takes off, astride Angus, and winds up following a trail of ghostly, neon-blue will-o’-the-wisps that lead her into a magical realm of the forest.

One fateful encounter later, Merida returns home with the means to have a wish fulfilled ... and we all know how that usually goes. In the grand tradition of all ill-advised bargains with magical entities, Merida’s wish has catastrophic consequences.

At which point, she’s the only one able to clean up her own mess ... assuming she can deduce the means to do so. More to the point, her selfish, reckless behavior does serious damage to our willingness to sympathize with her.

Things get dire in the third act, with a level of peril that occasionally overwhelms the family-friendly PG rating. Parents should think twice before bringing very young viewers; several sequences are quite scary.

While I’ve always advocated the presence of fairy tale grim tidings, in order to make happy endings that much happier, I can’t help feeling that Andrews and Chapman worked the fright factor a bit too much. The climactic menace and bloodlust are completely at odds with the film’s playful set-up and deliberately exaggerated characters, particularly the silly clan lords and their even sillier first-born sons, who vie for Merida’s hand in marriage.

We’ve seen this juxtaposition of tone before, in other animated features. The similarly oafish Gaston turns quite nasty toward the end of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, while the final, incredibly massive beastie in How to Train Your Dragon is rather a shock, after spending so much time with that film’s mostly foolish Vikings.

But the savage events that concluded those two films felt more thematically appropriate, and consistent with the preceding storylines; both climaxes also allowed their respective protagonists to act bravely and honorably. That’s not quite the case in Brave, where I rather doubt that Merida has learned the necessary lesson; the denouement lets her off rather easily, considering previous transgressions.

Mostly, though, the story beats feel begged, borrowed and stolen: a bit of Beauty and the Beast here; a soupçon of Lord of the Rings there; a nod toward Disney’s Snow White, with a magic tart standing in for a poisoned apple; and a marvelous horse that — although an engaging supporting character — evokes memories of Maximus, the similarly intelligent steed in Disney’s Tangled.

I also kept waiting for Merida’s three younger brothers to play a bigger part in the story, but it doesn’t happen; they never rise above sidebar slapstick, although their familiarity with the castle’s many secret passages does come in handy.

The Merida we meet, during the film’s first act, deserves better. She’s a vivacious, inspirational character who earns both our trust and respect ... at first. But too much of what happens next feels contrived, most particularly a midpoint narrative shift so abrupt that it feels as if we — and Merida — have stumbled into an entirely different story.

That’s a shame, because a lot is riding on this film: Pixar’s first human heroine, and the company’s first female feature director, albeit one working alongside a male colleague.

It should be noted that Chapman has strong credentials: She also co-directed 1998’s The Prince of Egypt, and earned scripting credits on Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King and Chicken Run, before joining Pixar to co-plot Cars. I’d love to see the Brave that would have resulted from her sole vision, but of course that’s impossible.

Meanwhile, I can only lament the unsatisfying, clumsily assembled storyline that simply doesn’t allow Merida to be her best self.

1 comment:

  1. This was something I discussed with my wife when we left the theater after seeing it. It was, we agreed, a Good movie. But it wasn't, we also agreed, a good Pixar movie. It didn't have the oomph or emotional impact or powerful storytelling that UP or Wall-E had. Brave was pretty to look at, but suffered in that storyboard planning that usually hallmarks the great films that Pixar is normally known for.