Pixar are back this summer, but changing their tact somewhat; instead of the high concepts of past (like a world of anamorphic cars, toys that come alive when no ones looking or an eldery man travelling in a flying house floating on balloons) they’re doing a straight up normal fairy tale with Brave. Will this change of tact mark a lowering of quality from the animation kings? Or is it another home-run success?
Brave tells us the tale of young Merida (Kelly Macdonald, Boardwalk Empire), a Scottish princess who clashes with her mother, Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson, An Education), over her destiny to be a queen and her wild carefree character to do what she wants. Despite being closer in spirit to her dad, King Fergus (Billy Connolly, X-Files: I Want To Believe), Merida loves her mum but doesn’t believe she should be betrothed to a prince just to keep the peace between the four major clans of the Scottish highlands. A chance encounter with a witch (Julie Walters, Harry Potter) inflicts a transforming curse on Elinor, which Merida instantly regrets., and with a cryptic message in tow, it’s a race against time for Merida and her transformed mother before the curse is made permanent.
The thing that jumped out from the cast was Connolly’s job as Fergus; he was fantastic as the peg legged Clan leader that won’t stop telling the tale of when he lost his leg to the dreaded devil bear, Mor’du. Of course, he’s pushed to the side for the two admittedly strong female lead characters, but he left more of an impression in a role built specifically for him, allowing his comedy stylings to shine through. Macdonald and Thompson weren’t slouches either and kept up the serious side of the plot, and whilst Macdonald showed a cool comedy edge to her voice acting in balance to her decent speech near the end scenes of Brave, even the minor roles with other clan heads are brought to life with notable Scottish actors like Robbie Coltrane, Kevin McKidd and Craig Ferguson.
It’s odd to note that this Pixar outing is perhaps the most Disney-like; in terms of the traditional style of output from the House of Mouse; it has the feel of the old feature length cartoons like Snow White & The Seven Dwarves and The Lion King, with black & white tales of good vs. evil, fantasy quests and old school witchery. It is Pixar’s first fairy tale, but it ticks all the boxes without too much innovation. Modern humour was mixed in with the tone of the ancient times and serviced the film very well, leaving a feeling of longing to see what else Pixar can do in this genre.
Of course, with this being a Pixar movie, they show off their CGI muscles considerably, and show it’s money well spent; there are some seriously good picturesque shots of the Scottish Highlands that are a really great shout at being the real thing. The opening scenes are simply astonishing with the, not joking, fairly realistic mountain ranges and weather effects, making you believe you’re in Scotland. It’s not surprising at all to learn Pixar had to rewrite their animation system for the first time in 25 years to achieve this level of CG majestry; compare it to the quality of animation in The Lorax, and Ice Age 4, for example, and it wipes the floor with the competition. Pixar set the bar for CG excellency, but here they’ve grabbed hold of their own bar and placed it even higher; with the ultimate winners being them creatively, and us, the audience, who get to enjoy their fantastic graphical achievements.
The setting of ancient Scotland, and Celtic heritage in general ,is captured marvellously; little nods to culture like personal clan markings, and the wonder of the highland games, are well captured and enjoyable; and there’s a definite feel for it encapsulated here, which is something that doesn’t always occur in concept films like this. The mysteries of the ancient times bring a whimsical charm to the highlands in computer generated life, and go hand-in-hand with the fantasy setting, and you’ve got to admire the restraint Pixar took in lasting 10 minutes before making a haggis joke (I expected five).
The clash of mother and daughter was intriguing, and made even more amazing by the fantastic twist of the witch’s spell halfway through (an totally unexpected twist which was thankfully left out of the trailers, completely out of left-field, and led to interactions between Merida and her transformed mother that are a dream to watch with Pixar’s magical CGI); the exchanges between the two are realistic, and yet the two voice actress’ can still alter the tone and carry on after the transformation. In fact the emphasis of two strong female lead characters in action and adventure roles (even if it’s an animated film), should be encouraged further; as it’s impossible to remember the last time there was as good a female lead as Merida on the big screen.
There are a few gripes however; Brave doesn’t really work as a title for this film (they’re trying to get away with it by saying Merida is such a strong carefree spirit, or showing Elina’s turn away from her Queeny ways after her transformation, but that’s being more than generous, as no-one does anything especially ‘brave’ at all here), Brave clocks in at an hour-and-a-half even though there’s more they could have done (the world Pixar created is filled with mystery, spooky glens, fantastical forests, and ruined castles aplenty; and it’s a shame we didn’t get to see more), the witch is a one-note character, and there were a few jokes that the writers missed out on that could have easily been added. Worst of all though, for all the talk Fergus gives us through the film about him getting revenge on Mor’du, it just doesn’t happen; there’s no reaction after what happens to the devil bear, no joke whatsoever, just the feeling of a missed opportunity; and the lack of a decent action scene or a setpiece hurts this film so much it can’t be classed as a great Pixar outing.
I can’t leave without mentioning the La Luna short attached to the front of Brave. The story of a boy, his dad and granddad cleaning up the moon from stars falling into it after rowing out to it from sea is straight out of that tap of pure genius they have at Pixar HQ. The very cute payoff at the end is magical and almost worth the price of entry alone!
So, Brave isn’t the worst thing Pixar have done but at the same it’s time not the greatest; it’s impossible to compare it to earlier releases when you think how high the bar has been set there, but it’s probably the funniest thing they’ve released, and the Scottish and celtic settings were done amazingly well. The La Luna short attached to the front of Brave is straight out of the Pixar tap of pure genius and worth the price of entry alone, and for once, a Brave sequel expanding on this setting and these characters would be more than welcome.