By Jacob Mertens.
Several years ago now, I watched the trailer for Satoshi Kon’s brilliant Paprika (2006) with rabid anticipation. I still remember the featured quote that set me over the edge, written by Manohla Dargis at The New York Times, stating that the film was “evidence that Japanese animators are reaching for the moon, while most of their American counterparts remain stuck in the kiddie sandbox”. Unfortunately, Hollywood studios have long since relegated animated films to a flight of fancy enjoyed only by children, a terrible waste considering the potential for animation to manifest the furthest depths of imagination, without burdening the screen with a flood of CGI. Recently though, Pixar has managed to carve a successful niche for itself by crafting films broadly accessible to all ages, while still harnessing some of animations potential for the fantastical. Recent films Up (2009) and WALL-E (2008), in particular, showcase both an astonishing level of technical excellence and a depth of maturity and wonderment in the fictional worlds being created.
With Pixar’s most recent film, Brave, the studio finds itself continuing to test its creative boundaries within a fantasy genre set up. However, before the potential viewer becomes too overjoyed by the prospect of Pixar creating a fantasy world with the same depth and detail that made the end of the world feel strangely tangible in WALL-E, I must admit that Brave really isn’t much of a fantasy film at all. True, it wears the proper clothing; it even foregrounds its story in an age old fable that reveals itself to be true, but the real story here lies in the relationship between a mother and her daughter. The fantasy backdrop is artifice, window dressing, with no real impact on the proceedings beyond a wacky body swap gag and an excuse to create fun, rowdy characters who live out their days in drunken revelry.
The story involves the young Merida (Kelly Macdonald), a feisty princess with wild red hair, who resists the rites and pageantry that accompany her station in life. Meanwhile, Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson) tries and fails to beat a modicum of elegance and grace into her unkempt progeny. Soon, Merida learns that Elinor has invited suitors to come and win her hand in marriage at a tournament, and in true spirit of a modern telling on an outdated prejudicial tradition she refuses to go along with it. The irony is that King Fergus (Billy Connolly) sympathizes with his daughter and resists marrying her off, even though refusing the suitors could lead to a declaration of war, while Elinor insists on tradition. The conflict is familiar, but I must credit Pixar for making the characters believable and not copping out by having Merida fall in love with one of the suitors by the film’s end.
If only the filmmakers did not feel obligated to make a fantasy film out of their intimate feudal dramatic comedy. Instead, Merida goes to a witch and casts a spell to change her fate, unwittingly changing Elinor into a bear. Crazed with blood lust for the bear that took his leg (secretly a long lost prince now turned vicious monstrosity), King Fergus attempts to kill his own wife. This basic premise is stretched out through most of the film, padded by a lot of running around and comic sight gags, and while there’s nothing wrong with a simple story, the real problem lies in the film’s intentions. Brave does not convey the scope and grandeur that fantasy films can provide, but it postures like it does and ends up wasting a lot of time on nothing of real interest.
If my criticism sounds too harsh, let me be clear: Brave is a lovely film that sadly represents a step backwards into the “kiddie sandbox”. The film’s visual design is flawless, but the story feels closed off if not entirely unaffecting. In other words, Brave is both sweet and disarming, the characters are amiable, and a profound change occurs between how Merida and her mother relate to each other. That story is told in forty minutes. The rest of the film spins its wheels, as its characters walk around gorgeously rendered landscapes with nothing to do but follow will-o’-the-wisps that have no practical purpose other than to look pretty in 3D. For a film called “brave,” Pixar’s latest is surprisingly tame.
Jacob Mertens is a Film International ‘In the Field’ writer.