[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.

14 Responses to “LAFF: Pixar’s “Brave””

  1. I’m not going to read the review yet, as I plan to see this, but I’m glad to see the good star rating. This is one that I’ve really been looking forward to, so I’m glad to see that you liked it.


  2. I predict you’ll dig it. It’s lovely and has a girl hero, so what’s not to like?

  3. Yeah, I liked it alright. I have to admit I was a little put-off by the Dreamworks-esque humor surrounding all the male characters, who are essentially every stereotype of loutish silly Scotsman you can think of post-Braveheart. But ultimately the film isn’t about them, and Merida and her Mother are really the stars of the story.

    They have a very interesting story to tell, and I was overjoyed that Pixar kept most of the story out of the numerous teasers and trailers. It won’t ruin the movie to spoil the plot, but it will certainly made it more interesting not knowing it, so I’ll leave it at that. And as always, they really got me with the climax of the story. I felt it was a bit predictable, but beautifully told.

  4. That’s great to read that you enjoyed it as much as you did. The backlash was against Brave early, fortunately, that seems premature now.

  5. The problem I had with Brave was that the lead character Merida, commtted an act that was self-serving and goes through a good portion of the film more concerned about her wants than the consequences of her actions.

    To me it made Merida the true antagonist, because there was nothing from what I saw, as redeeming and sympathetic qualities. Nothing to endure me to a character that started off as self serving and to me at least, continued on a path without “significant” revelation. I think the writer(s) tried to do this, but the execution was not there.

    The last thing is, I thought the title was misleading. Had it been explored that it was “BRAVE” of Merida to face up to her actions and selfish-ness, I could understand but it missed out on a point/theme that could have it a very strong movie.

    Great visual movie but I feel the story could have been stronger with a few tweaks.

  6. James, it’s true that Merida is difficult through a lot of the film, but that’s kind of what the film is ultimately about, learning to be independent without being selfish. There’s a very fine line between the two and she stumbles at times, but in the end I think she gets it right.

    Colin, it’s gotten to a point where Pixar can’t compete with itself and I think that’s where some of the backlash comes from. My gut feeling while watching it was that it didn’t feel like an instant Pixar masterpiece, but I think it’s also a film that is complex and detailed enough to benefit from just more than one viewing. I think I’ve liked each of their movies more the 2nd time and i’d be surprised if Brave was an exception.

    Joel, yeah, there was a crassness to some of the movie that felt a little like it was pandering, but based on the trailers I was expecting more of that and worse so I was relieved it only went so far.

    Also glad the trailers didn’t give away the whole story. I hope this review kept a lid on it as well.

  7. ****SPOILERS BELOW****

    I’d agree, James. That is the point, that she’s a selfish character who acts without thinking, but her Mother was being equally selfish and uncaring by forcing her daughter into a life she did not want. I think the point is that Merida’s actions change the way they see each other, which I felt was clearly established in the film. Ultimately, Merida works with her Mother (instead of against her) to solve the problems that Merida’s actions caused. As a result their entire culture changes and grows from it and they both grow closer together.

    Is Merida a radically different person at the end of the film? I’d say no, but is she a better person, someone who cares more about those she loves than she does herself? I think that’s fairly evident. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong or incorrect about that portrayal. Merida is the person that she is, headstrong and motivated by her desire to be her own person. But she seemed a better person to me, someone who has seen her own error and tried to make her amends.

  8. Craig, Joel –

    Good points. I’m going to revisit the movie (did not hate it at all)

    Thanks for insight guys.

  9. Your comments got me thinking that one character theme that seems fairly consistent over the majority of Pixar films (beyond Wall-E) is growth vs change. The main characters learn to see beyond their own needs and appreciate how they relate to their own communities, or more distinctly, their families. This is most evident in the Toy Story films, A Bug’s Life, The Incredibles, and Cars. I excluded Wall-E because I don’t think Wall-E necessarily grows or changes, but he does change his entire world simply by being himself.

  10. Good points all around Joel.

    I suspect Brave isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea and so far reviews bear that out, but I dug it. But like I said above, as I was watching it I wasn’t blown away, but thinking about it after I was hard pressed to find anything wrong with it.

    Sometimes I think a Pixar movie must make the audience collectively or simultaneously orgrasm or it’s a failure

  11. It’s almost 1:00 A.M. on Friday morning here on the East Coast, and I needed to do a few things before hitting the hay, already late in view of morning summer school classes. Anyway, I saw the late show of this film with three of the young ones and I must say I loved it. I completely agree with you on the 4 of 5 rating and on a good number of your qualifiers. I also agree (sadly) that a few of the hit friendly songs did water it a down a little bit. Still, I loved Patrick Doyle’s score overall, and even a few of the songs were terrific. I’ll have more to say about the film on an upcoming Watercooler, but your review (I know, late to the party, because of the spaghetti westerns) is just what the doctored ordered right now.

    Another Pixar triumph. What else is new? Yeah it’s not perfect, but it’s still exceptional.

  12. Delighted you liked it Sam as many of the Pixar faithful seem to be turning on it. My beef with the songs was a minor nitpick and I want to emphasize I like the woman who did the singing, I just wish she’d done it in Gaelic. These could’ve been sung by Celine Dione. But the rest was delightful. Did any of your daughters go with you? What’d they make of a modern Pixar spin on a Disney princess tale?

  13. My youngest daughter Jillian did attend and she loved the film. The updated Pixar take on previous Disney princess tales is what ultimately hooked her in. She was telling my wife about the film this morning in glowing terms! Even the two younger boys who attended liked the film.

  14. On first viewing I’m not 100% convinced the two opposing forces are reconciled, but perhaps they’re not meant to be.

    I agree with this. I think that both mother and daughter each gave a little bit but both still stuck to their positions ultimately. The important thing was that the deep bond was still there even though the two opposing forces aren’t necessarily reconciled (or meant to be reconciled) and they will no doubt butt heads again – a lot.

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