Tuesday, July 3, 2012
A Very Short Brave Review
Before you read any further, I reveal some things that may be considered spoilers, in that they were not directly stated in the trailers. There are also a few points that are definitely spoilers. So, be forewarned. In fact, you may as well watch the movie first so you can more fully understand the points that I'm trying to make.
Brave is the least Pixary Pixar film since The Incredibles. There are no cute characters to add levity to the universe a la Monsters Inc. Finding Nemo, or the god-awful cuteness shoehorned into Up. There is very little about this movie that lends itself to Disney-style merchandising. The lead character is also the most classically Shakespearean character to ever come from Pixar. It is fitting that she should be placed in a fairy tale.
Unfortunately, therein lies the problem. This is a fairy tale and, for whatever reason, Pixar didn't have the balls to fully dive into that universe. They also didn't want to apply the full Disney gloss to the story, like Disney became so good at doing in the 1990's. Perhaps because they recognized that there are very significant limitations to the Disney gloss. For example, even when Disney was at its peak, their just isn't enough of that special sauce in the galaxy to make The Hunchback of Notre Dame not dark. Stories must exist in a universe, and that universe must be created specifically to contain a system of cause and effect. If that system is going to be dangerous, don't make the movie.
Pixar tried to walk this odd line between Disney and Brothers Grimm, and was not completely successful. I criticize them because they didn't have to fail. There is nothing that said that Pixar had to attempt full fairy tale, because fairy tales have become so ingrained in our zeitgeist that their gross elements can be used to create any system that a studio wants. They can make The Brothers Grimm and Snow White And The Huntsman, and they can be used equally well to create to Tangled and Shrek. Pixar shouldn't have tried to walk into true Fairy Tale Land. They did, and the movie is less for it.
But before I get to into that, I want to talk about where this movie succeeds. The animation is without doubt the most impressive CGI work ever. Even if you mentally consider the time in which a movie was made, sort of like taking into account creative inflation, Brave is a stunning achievement. There is texture and magic to the world that simply does not exist in any other CGI work. Only Finding Nemo comes close.
I also liked how they changed the way that they rendered the characters. They are not like previous Pixar films, nor are they the Disney style seen in Tangled. They are still obviously the products of Cal Arts students, but different enough as to be refreshing.
The script is pretty tight, bumps along at good speed, and all of the action is quite entertaining. Dialog is fantastic, and scenes of comedy are at times amazingly hilarious. I loved Merida. She is the most vibrant, strongest, and singular character that Pixar has created, with the possible exception of Carl Fredrickson from Up.
Problematically, one of the biggest weaknesses with the film was also one of the best parts: the witch. As you can guess from the trailers, Merida meets a witch who gives her a spell that causes a whole bunch of trouble. The witch is not a bad witch. She's actually quite nice. Instead of simply being some evil forest-dwelling crone, she's a long-lived salesman of spells and bear-themed wood carvings (spot the Pizza Planet truck in her wood shop!). I really loved the different take on the witch, and her sidekick talking crow is a great character. So why is she also one of the biggest problems? Because she is one of the most glaring elements of the film that I suspect was originally darker and more truly Fairy Tale.
So now on to the negative bits. The witch is portrayed as being generally nice. But she gives Merida the spell that turns her mother into a bear, and does so seemingly without malice. But that makes her obfuscation as to the actual effects of the spell completely unexplained. It is also a gargantuan stretch of dialog for Merida to not even come close to asking what the spell is going to do. After the interaction, Merida is magically transported away from the Witch's cabin for no reason at all. Indeed, the entire interaction with the witch is very entertaining but entirely incoherent.
I'm glad that they wanted to do something different with the witch, but her actions could not come from a disinterested third party, as the story says. She would either have to evil, and purposely obfuscate the spell's effects, or be benevolent and obfuscate the effects for the sake of teaching Merida a lesson, or for greater purposes. By greater purposes, I mean that the story spends a great deal of time talking about fate, and they had a chance to create a physical manifestation of fate in the witch, and didn't. Similarly, they never explain the appearance of the Wisps to only Merida. There's a great deal of conflict between fate and choosing one's own path that is never addressed, nor is the question in the trailer of "paying the price for freedom" ever answered. Merida only pays the price for not asking what the freaking spell does.
Perhaps causing this lack of narrative depth is the lack of narrative itself. The story is very simple, and two extended action sequences take up about a third of the movie: getting the mother out of the castle and then getting the mother back into the castle. One of the points in the film where they could have had real character development, they fall into that bastion of lazy filmmakers everywhere, the getting better montage1. Montage in general is the fallback of poor films, but the "getting better" variant is one of the worst. It can sometimes be used for humorous effect and to explain quickly what took time. Pixar is no stranger to this trick having used it in The Incredibles, Ratatouille, and even Cars. But in Brave, it butters over the fact that very little development takes place between Merida and her mother. This is made glaringly obvious when the dual epiphanies near the end of the film have nary a drop of dramatic heft to them.
Epiphany is a difficult thing to write. It requires enormous care, time for the events to stew in the minds of the audience, and enough dialog and behavior to effectively communicate the internal world of the characters. Frequently, the best time to have epiphany is at the very end of the film. The epiphany is literally the climax, and the characters don't expect the event until it happens. One of the best epiphanies that I can think of is Darth Vader at the end of Return of the Jedi. One of the worst is Anakin Skywalker at the end of Revenge of the Sith.
They didn't completely fail in Brave, but they missed the mark. I put 100% of the blame on the aofrementioned overly long action sequences. When over half of the movie is action, with little chance for character and dialog, it's no surprise that the epiphany at the end is a dud. They should have either cut the actions scenes significantly, integrated more dialog and development into the action scenes, or extended the time of the film. Ratatouille, Cars, The Incredibles, and Cars 2 were all fifteen minutes longer or more. There are certain stories that just can't effectively be told in the 90-minute "kid block." Mark Andrews, the second director, said in a review that they stripped the Merida story down to the core. They stripped it too far.
Again, I think the root of every problem in the film is that they didn't want to invest into a fully fairy tale universe, but they also didn't want to add a Disney-style sheen to the fabric of the universe. This internal conflict meant that character development that was necessary didn't take place and caused inconsistencies in the plot.
Fairy tales frequently work without much character development --Sleeping Beauty, Snow White-- because the characters are all archetypes, sometimes even bordering on cliche. This means that development is simply not needed. We all know what this person is because it is stated from the outset. It's fine to play around with the characters a bit, but they more or less remain the same. Build off of the archetypes.
I suspect that this is what Brave originally was, and caused the "creative differences" that resulted in Brenda Chapman's dismissal as director. We know that her version was filled with snow and was generally colder and more magical in its outlook. This lines up very well with the original title of the movie, The Bear And The Bow. That name just drips with traditional fairy tale values.
A traditional fairy tale is going to be dark. Those old fairy tales were almost always a narrative over an underlying story of hellfire and death. The consequences were dark and brutal because they were trying to represent a world that was dark and brutal. I mean, for Christ's sake, in an early version of Cinderella, the prince beheads the evil stepsisters.
I think that because Brave was by Pixar, they should have gone full-comic. Ditch the real bad guys, go for an anthropomorphic bear that's more a highwayman and swindler than a real, deadly threat. I would have personally preferred the dark, true fairy tale, but I understand that that sort of film doesn't really fit well with the Pixar canon. The film that they gave us is neither. It isn't satisfying from a fairy tale perspective, and isn't comic enough to fit in with other Pixar films. I very much enjoyed Brave, but there's so much there that could have been better, it's almost painful for me to watch.
Finally, this is nitpicking, I know, but when the fuck does this movie take place? The architecture is early second millennium. The characters are all wearing traditional modern kilts that weren't created until the mid 1500's (Braveheart made the same mistake). They refer to "clans" which is a concept that dates from the 1000's, although some clans claim lineage back to the 500's. One of the characters is said to have repelled Romans(!?) during a battle. Merida wears a corset, which wasn't invented, at least in the form shown in the movie, until Elizabethan times. And they are still fighting bears, which went extinct in Britain during the late first millennium during the Dark Ages.
An Even Shorter Review of La Luna.
La Luna is the requisite short that precedes Brave, and it was very cute. Not the best short that they have ever done, but light, twee, fun, and incredibly European. I am not surprised that it was created by a guy named Enrico.
1: I stole this wording of the phenomenon from my partner, Danielle.