Once upon a time, 1995 to be precise, Pixar studios burst onto the scene with the surprising Toy Story. In the 17 years that followed, the studio created some of the most incredible animated films ever made. I will take this a step farther–Pixar’s Incredibles, Ratatouille and Up are three of the greatest expressions of animation in world history, and Brad Bird’s Ratatouille, I’m convinced, will be regarded as a comedy in the ranks of His Girl Friday, Bringing Up Baby, and other classics.
Pixar films were out of their time, tremendously entertaining and thought provoking. The studio seemed intent on not only making their movies technologically brilliant, but character-based stories that were subtle and without the usual Disney tropes. Gone were the treacly songs, gone were the ham-handed lessons, gone were the annoying celebrity voice work. Instead, they created a rich tapestry of sometimes odd stories, hilarious, adventurous in the purest sense of the word, peopled with rats, old men, angst-ridden superheroes, characters that will endure for generations.
Nothing lasts, however. Ever since Up, the studio, in my mind, has been faltering. I’m not going to try and analyze other critics, except to say that I remain baffled by the praise heaped on Toy Story 3, a mediocre and maudlin picture so busy it seemed like it was done by a hyperactive teen. I avoided Cars 2–the Cars duo are the only Pixar films I’ve missed, in part because I made a solemn vow that I would cut my own tongue out if I ever partook in anything with Larry the Cable Guy.
And now comes Brave, and I have to say that this seems to me to be the one that rings so hollow, seems so unlike their other efforts, that it signals an ultimate end in something. Pixar, once the greatest animation studio perhaps in history, has now fallen prey to the Dreamworks curse of awful music, annoying pop culture references, and caters to the worst of its audience. To put it simply: Brave is a wreck.
The plot: Merida (Kelly Macdonald, the whining wife in No Country for Old Men) is a young woman living with her royal family in a castle in rural Scotland. Her father is the king of the clans, Fergus (Billy Connelly, who else?); her mother, the uptight but loving queen Elinor (Emma Thompson); and the three red-headed triplets who wreak havoc like a trio of Tasmanian Devils.
Merida is a master at archery and wants, well, we don’t know really what she wants, but we do know that she doesn’t want to get married. And yet, that is what must happen–three clans are bringing their firstborns to claim her hand. That this seemingly important event is an utter surprise to Merida is the first sign of trouble–why did they wait to tell her until it was right on top of her? “This is what you’ve been working for your whole life,” Elinor says at one point, but of course nobody thought to tell the girl that all her life. Really?
Merida is infuriated at this, naturally, and so when they settle on an archery contest to determine the groom-to-be, she’s thrilled. Our red head is the best archer in the land and proceeds to win her own hand–not a surprise, since it’s the heart of every trailer promoting this picture. The scene has hardly been developed and has little impact–there’s nothing threatening out little world, her marriage seems to have no bearing on, well, anything, and she doesn’t want to get married, and we all know that she won’t. There’s so little gravas to this conceit it barely moves the plot along.
This is because, despite Pixar’s usual attempt at incredible verisimilitude (the castle and the outfits of the men are striking as usual), the conversations and action of Brave are strangely domestic. It’s one thing to show superheroes in the present stumbling through the tedium of a 9 to 5 job, and bickering amongst themselves like families do–that was the point of the Incredibles, that these superheroes are surprisingly like you and I even when they’re not. But the family in Brave is pure tedium and hardly original–Merida whines and complains like a spoiled teen, forever rolling her eyes and groaning “Mo-oom!” or falling backwards on her bed and sighing like a brat. It seems totally incongruous to the time, which is fine in cheap Dreamworks fare, but for Pixar we’ve come to expect them to be true to the story (consider the attention to even the smallest kitchen detail in Ratatouille.)
Determined not to get married to one of the three bumbling teens, Merida rides into the deep forest and stumbles on a witch who will grant her a wish. The witch and her workshop are visually striking, but the character is a dud, a fast-talking jokester along the lines of Robin Williams’ genii in Aladdin. Merida is given a little cake that she’ll feed to her mother, who will “change”, so that Merida can determine her own fate. We know this won’t go as planned, in part because it seems like the girl doesn’t even know what she wants.
For whatever reason, most reviewers have left out the key element of the plot, which I guess is supposed to be a surprise, but I’m going to reveal it here: Elinor eats the cake, and she turns into a bear. I’ve neglected to mention that Fergus, like Ahab, lost his leg to a giant bear years ago, and basically kills every bear he sees.
Elinor’s turning into a bear is one of the strangest moments I’ve had as a moviegoer. For starters, Pixar totally scores here: the bear is rendered perfectly, totally real, and it’s a moment in which I was awestruck. The animators captured what I imagine it would really be like if a human being became a bear. The look, the actions, everything–it is a startling moment, and I commend them.
But it destroys the plot. In fairy tales, typically when someone is turned into an animal, it is by their own hand, or due to their own cruelty. Elinor has been neither–she’s simply had a disagreement with Merida. And here the tenor of the film totally sours. Instantly I found myself loathing the girl, who can’t stop saying “It’s not my fault.” The realism of the bear becomes too much to handle–we recoil at the trauma Elinor goes through, and recoil again at this majestic creature trapped in a castle, pursued by bumbling animated Scotsmen intent on killing it, and totally capable of doing so.
There is a story about Buster Keaton’s the Navigator that illustrates Brave’s problems here. Keaton spent a hundred grand on this wonderful little underwater dance with himself and a bunch of fish in that movie. The problem was, that this scene occurs at the same moment that the heroine was in mortal danger from a bunch of cannibals. Keaton dances while the girls is seemingly being killed. Audiences hated it, as they were so unnerved by the girl’s trouble they couldn’t laugh–it made them uncomfortable.
So it is in Brave. A scene where the mother, as a bear, is trying to learn how to fish for salmon, is discomfiting. Merida laughs at her, and you can’t help wonder what this girl is thinking–this is hardly funny, as the mother didn’t ask for this, and is horrified at what has happened. In a way, Pixar’s success at rendering the bear undermines this–there’s a necessary disconnect when we see cartoons and movies where someone’s become an animal, but here it’s so real all we can feel is Elinor’s trauma, which is so acute as to be sickening.
From here on out, Brave becomes a chore to endure, as Merida’s annoying habit of trying to avoid culpability and the harrowing near-escapes of this poor animal grate on the nerves. Furthermore, Brave quickly loses track of what it wanted–the movie is really about Elinor, but what does she get from being changed? Nothing really.
To make matters worse, Merida doesn’t learn anything, doesn’t actually save the mother, doesn’t really do anything. The act that returns the mother to human form (this is still Disney–you knew that was coming) is lightweight. And her lesson at the end? That her mother is a good person who didn’t deserve to be turned into a bear. Huh? Merida gets what she wants, Mom goes back to normal, nothing was lost, no one hurt.
You may notice I’m avoiding the names of the filmmakers, because unlike other Pixar movies, this one appears to have been made by committee, which is usually a problem. Three directors–Mark Andrews, Brenda Chapman, and Steve Purcell–worked on it, and those three plus Irene Mecchi wrote the thing (usually a lot of people work on the plot in Pixar movies, though.) But something broke along the way–this is the one Pixar movie chock full of annoying songs, inspirational Scottish folk-rock garbage meant to signal emotion. Plus there’s so much clamor–fighting, screaming, people getting their feet stomped, googly eyes and what not, you wonder whose film you’re watching. Certainly not Pixar’s.
The Pixar films were always a high point of every summer, even if the movie wasn’t my favorite, like Wall*E or Monsters, Inc. There was always this sense of a studio of close-knit individuals, some geniuses but a lot of clever, hard-working craftspeople in love with their art, where character and story reigned supreme… as opposed to just being a product that sold toys at McDonald’s (even when there were toys at McDonald’s.)
Brave feels calculated, it feels like plastic, and it’s nearly awful. If you love movies, this is a moment to lament. Pixar might not be down and out, but it’s certainly down, and cinema is poorer for that.