June 22, 2012

Brave

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A movie review by James Berardinelli



Brave

ANIMATED:

United States, 2012

U.S. Release Date:

2012-06-22

Running Length:

1:35

MPAA Classification:

PG

Theatrical Aspect Ratio:

2.35:1

Cast:

(voices) Kelly Macdonald, Billy Connolly, Emma Thompson, Julie Walters, Robbie Coltrane, Kevin McKidd, Craig Ferguson

Director:

Brenda Chapman, Mark Andrews

Screenplay:

Mark Andrews and Steve Purcell and Brenda Chapman and Irene Mecchi

Music:

Patrick Doyle

U.S. Distributor:

Walt Disney Pictures

Subtitles:

none


At first glance, Brave seems much like an old-fashioned animated Disney princess film done using new-fangled technology. Most of the elements are in place: the plucky heroine, the faithful animal companion, a mysterious wizard, and a character-building journey. There are even a few songs. Looking deeper, however, there's something missing: narrative momentum. The thinly-written storyline takes us on an adventure, to be sure, but not necessarily one viewers will be interested in taking. The tone is uneven and more often morose than joyful. The pacing is slow and at times almost tedious. The end result is something that feels like it was put together from a jumble of Disney clichés tacked onto the skeleton of Beauty and the Beast.

The lack of both a romantic element and a real villain is only part of the problem. Another issue is that the lead character, the wild, arrow-shooting, red-headed Princess Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald) is more of a brat than a spunky, strong-willed girl. Okay, there's a fine line but, for the most part, Disney has managed to stay on the right side of it. Watching Merida, the only thing I could think is that her parents indulged her too much. As the movie progresses, we see that's true of her blustering father, King Fergus (Billy Connolly), who lets her get away with just about anything. Her mother, Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson), tries to lay down the law but ends up being turned into a bear for her troubles. The spoiled Merida, not liking to be constrained by Mom's rules (especially the one about marrying a prince), finds a witch and obtains magic that, when applied, results in Elinor becoming bear-able. The rest of the movie is spent trying to reverse the spell before Big Game Hunter Fergus inadvertently kills his wife.

Something sad has happened within Pixar. With Brave as a lackluster follow-up to the misfire of Cars 2, they seem to be spinning their wheels. Gone is the magic they infused in great films like The Incredibles, Finding Nemo, WALL*E, and the Toy Storys. Gone are the days when movie-lovers of all ages could celebrate the release of a new Pixar feature. They have fallen back to the pack, and maybe even slipped a little behind. Even Brave's staunchest defenders will grudgingly admit that this is "lesser Pixar." Artistically, despite its catalog of flaws, Brave is superior to Madagascar 3, but kids will prefer the latter for its color, its spectacle, and its cheerfulness. Curiously, Brave is neither fish nor fowl. It lacks a strong appeal to kids (too slow, too dark, too long) and adults (too superficial, not well written). The "Disney" and "Pixar" names assure an audience but it's hard to imagine Brave generating a lot of enthusiasm. Its final numbers will likely be closer to those of Cars 2 than Up.

With computer animated films circa 2012, it's almost pointless to talk about the "look." Ten or fifteen years ago, we marveled at the level of subtlety and detail in movie like this. Now, the playing field is level. Nearly all animated films - whether from Fox, Pixar, Dreamworks, Warner Brothers, or someone else - boast the same polished appearance. Brave uses a dark pallet but it appears neither better nor worse than Madagascar 3 or The Lorax. (Time to insert my obligatory 3-D verdict: don't bother. Not the greatest - it dims an already dark movie and there is blur during scenes where there's a lot of movement.)

Choosing the voice actors appears to have been easy: find everyone in the industry with SAG credentials who can boast either a genuine Scottish accent or a decent facsimile. So there's Kelly Macdonald, Craig Ferguson, Billy Connolly, Kevin McKidd, and Robbie Coltrane. Emma Thompson trades in her upper class British dialect for something more earthy. One assumes that if James Doohan was still alive, he would have been offered a part. It's tempting to give Pixar points for authenticity, although during the time period when this transpires, the language spoken by the people of Scotland would have been unrecognizable to today's audiences, requiring subtitles.

Brave features one of the most potentially frightening sequences in any recent animated film. This is partially responsible for the PG (instead of G) rating. Two bears - the transformed Elinor and a bigger, badder monster - go at it in an ursa smackdown that is surprisingly graphic for a family feature. Older kids won't be bothered; they may even applaud this scene (especially since it's one of only a few action-oriented segments). Younger children, however, may be frightened. It's not just the degree to which violence is depicted but the overall intensity of the sequence. It will likely be less scary on a TV, but on a big screen, some children may find it overwhelming.

Early in its genesis, Brave was being touted as "the first animated film directed by a woman." That woman, Brenda Chapman, didn't make it all the way through the production, being replaced by Mark Andrews part-way through due to "creative differences." Maybe that in part explains Brave's meandering approach and tone. Chapman, who is still credited as both a co-director and a co-writer, previously worked on the story for 1991's Beauty and the Beast and appears to have used pieces of that film as an inspiration here. The climax, in fact, is almost a direct steal (with Mom standing in for Prince Charming). In the end, Brave could have used a little of the Beauty and the Beast magic.

Brave is preceded by the charming Pixar short, "La Luna," which is ultimately more worth the price of admission than the feature.

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