Tuesday 21 August 2012
(Mark Andrews, Brenda Chapman, 2012) Only a few years ago, Pixar appeared possessed of some sort of magic formula. Film after film rolled off the factory line there; each of them technically wondrous, splendidly entertaining for both adults and children, and yet almost mythically resonant and charged with an emotional power many narratives never quite access. The consistency was staggering, the breadth of vision - from the ecologically-minded dystopian sci-fi of Wall.E to a clever retelling of the Seven Samurai with insects in A Bugs Life to the epic comedy drams of the Toy Story films, each with profound thngs today about mortality, ageing and family - remarkable, and the ability to marry big laughs with pure thrills seemingly effortless. That has changed since the critical and commercial triumph of Toy Story 3. Last years Cars 2 was a fun kids film, but it had few pleasures for adult audiences, and Brave is perhaps the studios most generic, least distinctive film yet. Which isn't to say it's bad. Its good, solid family entertainment, telling the story of young Scottish Princess Merida (voiced by Kelly MacDonald), who lives in the Medievel Highlands and loves riding, archery and generally un-Princessly pursuits, and her battle with her mother the Queen (Emma Thompson), who wants her to follow custom and marry the heir of one of the other local clans. Desperate to keep doing the things she loves, Merida visits a witch (Julie Walters) in the forest, procures a spell to "change" her mother, then watches in horror as that literally happens, and the Queen is transformed into a huge bear. It just so happens that the King (Billy Connolly) is obsessed with killing bears, having lost a leg to one when Merida was a child.. All of that means a film with the traditionally Disney-ish themes of being true to yourself, learning to trust family etc. None of that and none of the emotional beats are remotely new or even particularly interesting. The design and visuals, however, are predictably excellent, albeit far darker, both visually and tonally, than in past Pixar productions. Indeed, the intensity of some of the scarier moments in the second half of the film may be a bit much for some children, and the comic elements are more muted (and, honestly, less funny) than in just about every other Pixar film. But then this is mostly a drama, following a female protagonist (another first for the company), with pronounced horror elements and a heavy use of voiceover. That is sometimes indicative of a film with problems with narrative clarity, which may be the case here - the first act is full of exposition and explanation, talky scenes establishing motivation and mythology, and the action doesn't really kick in until half an hour in, a stretch in a childrens film. The problem is probably one of expectation. Brave is a perfectly fine animated film for children, but it lacks that glow of inspiration that seemed to light previous Pixar triumphs from within. It even compares poorly with a recent production with similar themes and setting from a different company; How to Train Your Dragon was funnier, wittier, more exciting and looked just as impressive. A few years ago it would have been unthinkable to suggest that a Dreamworks Animation would be better than a Pixar Production. But that, unfortunately, is no longer true.