[Brave christens the 3,400 seat Dolby Theatre (formerly the Kodak) for pass holders tonight as part of the Los Angeles Film Festival. It screens again tomorrow night downtown for general audiences and it opens in theaters across the country on Friday.]
Even after the relative disappointment of Cars 2, Pixar has been cruising along at such a high level for such a long time that it’s easy to take them for granted. That the status quo they’ve set is on a whole other level than most mainstream American animation doesn’t seem to matter. We expect them to raise the bar each and every time out. In its marriage of a traditional Disney princess story with the expected Pixar craft and cleverness, their newest film Brave in some ways feels a little like another retrenchment from the creative highs of Ratatouille and WALL-E, movies that were pitched as much or more toward adults than they were children. On the other hand, Brave is a class act all the way. It may be conventional, but there’s a freshness to it at the same time. Think of it as a beautiful Pixar spin on classic Disney material.
I’m not sure how much the gender of the main character really matters, but it’s true my favorite Pixar character is big sister Violet from The Incredibles and I’m glad to see Brave shakes up the boys club with another terrific heroine who this time gets to be the star of her own show. Merida (Kelly Macdonald, No Country for Old Men, HBO’s Boardwalk Empire) is a blue-eyed and flame-haired princess growing up in the Scottish Highlands in ancient times when magic still lurked in the vast green fields and dark unexplored forests. Raised by her father to be strong and skillful and self sufficient, Merida is not your typical princess content to wait around for Prince Charming to show up. In fact, she openly revolts when she finds out she’s being forced into an arranged marriage with one of three not very promising suitors. Her revolt has perilous consequences for her family, however, when she inadvertently unleashes an ancient curse and it falls to Merida alone to put things right again.
The moral behind Brave is an interesting and ambiguous one. It shows the consequences of reckless selfishness, but it’s also very much about seeking your own path in life. It’s about finding the balance and harmony between individualism and shared responsibility. On first viewing I’m not 100% convinced the two opposing forces are reconciled, but perhaps they’re not meant to be.
Though the Gaelic-influenced original score by Patrick Doyle was lovely, my only real nitpick with the film is the two songs sung by Scottish Gaelic folk singer Julie Fowlis. Fowlis has a beautiful voice and her own songs which she sings in Gaelic are delicate and other-worldly and haunting, but “Touch the Sky” and “Into the Open Air” from Brave are sung in hit single-friendly English and as a result they feel kind of watered down and ordinary. Emma Thompson (who voices Queen Elinor) has a song that’s at least part in Gaelic, but I wish there had been a lot more of that and I wish Fowlis had had an opportunity to show her stuff in the language. That could’ve been sublime.
Otherwise technically, Brave is as faultless as we’ve come to expect. The animation, all rich greens and blues punctuated by Merida’s flowing mane of bright orange hair, is beautiful. My favorite bit of business both in terms of 3D animation and sound design involved the ethereal will-o-the-wisps (above) which guide Merida to her fate for better and for worse. The archery sequence too makes perfect use of 3D. In terms of the voice acting, I could listen to Kelly Macdonald’s Scottish accent all day long and the rest of the voice cast including Emma Thompson, Billy Connolly, Craig Ferguson, Robbie Coltrane and Julie Walters are also terrific. As always, there is plenty of humor, but Brave never openly panders to little kids (though kids are sure to love Merida’s three little brothers who are like Harpo Marx in triplicate).
With its mix of humor, adventure, drama and emotion, Brave is everything you could want from any movie, animated or otherwise. The union of traditional and new-fashioned is uneasy at times, but it ultimately works. Brave does not reinvent the animated wheel or move the form forward, but sometimes it’s important to appreciate the best of the here and now.
As always with Pixar, there’s a bonus short film before the feature. This year it’s the wonderful Oscar-nominated La Luna. Though La Luna lost out to the equally worthy The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore, it’s one of Pixar’s finest and it looks great on the big screen in 3D.