Brave: A Case of Inflated Expectations?
We bought tickets in advance for Friday's showing. I prepped my kids that it was going to be a great treat Friday morning to go see the movie together on one of my rare weekdays off.
So, in the blazing heat of June 22nd, we hoofed across the parking lot of the newest theater in town and took our seats twenty-five minutes early so we could be in the high-center of the theater, my preferred place for seeing a film for the sake of both visual and sound experience.
And from a visual and sound standpoint, Brave did not disappoint. Whatever software development Pixar did to wrangle the mind-boggling textures of Merida's hair, the coats on the animals, the stone, grass, moss--everything--it paid off. I heard one advance reviewer say the environments were reminiscent of How to Train Your Dragon.* Well, only in the way an art student's attempts at the reproduction of an Old Master are reminiscent of the original. Pixar clearly has the leading edge on the technology that makes their films visually deeper than just about anything out there. (OK, Weta workshop gives them a run for their money, but Pixar is still the horse I'd bet on in that race if I were the betting type.)
Back to the environments, though--the lighting was stunning, and the foliage, rock, and even soil of the world was rendered with the type of detail that was romantically super-real. When I was taking animation history with teacher and author John Culhane in college, he used to talk about how animation, in order to be making optimal use of the art from, needed to take reality and go beyond it. Make it more beautiful than it can be in real life. Somehow, the folks at Pixar do this without slipping over the edge of making the environment somehow too alien. Elements of the characters and environments may be exaggerated, but you still believe them with wide-eyed wonder.
That all being said, visuals are only the smaller portion of a movie's make-up, we all know this. What makes a movie a classic, a masterpiece, is the story. And this is where Brave faltered for me. But I do have to agree with the advance reviewers. This one didn't sing like The Incredibles, or Monsters Inc. or Toy Story or...or...or... It lacked the tight interweaving that I love in the best of what Pixar has offered in the past. (Which is ironic, since a tapestry figures into this film prominently.)
I often point to the writers at Pixar for being the masters of plant and payoff--where no element in the film is wasted. Sure, there were concepts established and used in this film, but simply not to the same "Aha!" effect as I have seen in the past. But the story this time seemed to suffer the effects of being in production for six years, being reworked umpteen times, switching directors eighteen months before the release, and then finally letting the film escape to the public for Disney's usual summer release date. It reminded me of my efforts at painting--where things weren't right and I reworked and reworked until what I had was a muddy, mostly-changed version of what I had set out to accomplish.
I could have lived with a little bit of looseness in the joints of the story if it hadn't been for the fact that the film played a couple of cards that instantly ruin a story for me. The lesser of these two infractions was the use of implied or on-screen nudity. I did not need to see a dozen animated Celts without their kilts on. Yes, it was only from the back, but it was an unnecessary grab for a laugh in a film that had garnered few to that point. I was astonished, to be honest, how quiet the audience was on the opening-day showing I attended. In the first twenty minutes of the film, gag after gag went by without eliciting even a chuckle from anyone. The nudity jokes did not help.
The second card in Brave's hand that I absolutely abhor is the "Men are Fools" card. Throughout the film, every man depicted on screen is a buffoon who can't express himself, who has no wisdom to contribute, and bungles along, only dragged to some sense of civility or competence when a woman sets things straight. I appreciate that women do a lot to help support the men around them, but this worn, stupid depiction of men basically wrecked most of the Brave viewing for me. I found myself folding my arms and gritting my teeth, when I'm usually perched on the edge of my seat, drinking a movie in. Yes, by the end of the tale, Dear old Dad's more relaxed philosophy does seem to win the day, but he gets no credit for seeing a better path. I get that this is primarily a mother-daughter tale, and I know I would love that story, deftly handled. Even a single scene between King and Queen where he gets a moment to show she listens to him and he has real wisdom to imbue would have turned this around for me. It wasn't there, and I say shame on Pixar for contributing to the pile of movies out there that feed the "woman are competent, men are a bunch of idiots" mantra.
Overall, I wouldn't discourage anyone from going to see the film. Much of it was beautiful and wonderful, and there is a very well-played poignant moment between Merida and her mother that offers a turning point in their relationship. But in general, the story points of the film came off less polished than I've come to expect, and no theme or point rang with the clarion peal we viewers usually count on Pixar to deliver.
Yes, I concede that I am infinitely hard to please anymore. But that's what happens when you've been presented with a steady diet of film delicacies, and suddenly you get a plate of generic spaghetti with jarred sauce. (Even if the sauce came in the most beautiful jar with a label so stunning you could almost cry looking at it.) My faith is not shaken, though--I'm still looking forward to summers to come, and pray this story slump Pixar has found itself in will ebb.
*Please don't get me wrong. I adored How to Train Your Dragon. But I must stand firm on my opinion their use of the technology was deft, but not as masterful as the Pixar team's.