Movie Review: BRAVE Showcases Pixar's B-Game, and That Ain't Bad

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The rule goes like this: Pixar is better than you (or I, or him, or her, or the nice old dog up the block).  So it is written.  So it shall be.  When the animation studio is on, there’s no one better; films like Toy Story 2, The Incredibles, Ratatouille, Wall-E, and Up aren’t just great movies for kids – they’re great movie, full stop.  Hell, when Pixar is off, the results are pretty spry.  As much as critics savaged Cars and its sequel, you can’t deny the filmmaking verve and engagement behind those two features, and it’s more than a little humbling that the studio’s C-game would be a top-shelf effort from a lesser animation house (have you seen the Madagascar films recently?).

So it goes with Brave.  Brave falls right in the middle of the Pixar spectrum – it isn’t as revelatory like Wall-E or as cynically engineered as Cars 2.  It is a solid, effortlessly enjoyable romp, and it feels unfair to punish it simply for being “good.”  Here’s the short version: if you like animation, and you’re looking for something that doesn’t completely exclude adults, Brave will satisfy.  That said, everything I say from here on out might read as nitpicking (hell, it probably is), so if the short version is good enough for you, then please, bow out now, and enjoy the movie.  You won’t be disappointed.

Now that we’re alone…

For its first half, Brave is quite a bit better than “good.”  In its depiction of Scottish princess Merida (given life through Kelly Macdonald’s spirited vocal performance), Brave seems like a direct rebuke to Disney’s Mulan.  At the time (1998, to be exact), Mulan made headway for the Mouse House because it seemed to be espousing a far more complex perspective on gender roles than previous Disney adventures had offered.  Mulan is a strong, independent woman who wanted to define her own future, and the film lets her do all the things that populist Hollywood entertainments normally reserve for male characters: fight, persevere, win.  But look closer – even after defeating the villain, Mulan resumes a more-or-less traditional feminine stance.  She returns to the sanctity of domestic life, where she begins planning a marriage to hunky soldier Li Shang.  I remember seeing this ending back in ’98 and wanting to scream; it felt like Disney was putting on a show of progressivity, rather than elevating the real thing.

Regardless of its faults (more on those later), Brave does not make the same mistake.  Merida’s mother (Emma Thompson) expects her to settle down and become a doting wife, and Merida rejects that expectation to the last.  Merida can shoot, fight, and ride better than any of her male counterparts, and it’s no mistake that all of the film’s significant male characters are deficient in one way or another.  Merida’s father (Billy Connolly) is a roly-poly cripple; her three younger brothers are gibbering hellions; and all of her potential suitors seem unfit to remove the arrows from Merida’s quiver.  Now, Merida is no saint herself – typical of Pixar’s attention to character, she’s stubborn-to-a-fault and a little self-centered, and these two traits ultimately kick-start the movie’s central conflict – but her imperfections only make Pixar’s depiction of gender all the more appealing: here’s a flawed person who learns to be her best self without sacrificing her own values or subjugating herself to male dominance.

Brave gives viewers this positive message alongside the fast pace and vivid action and good humor that they’re known for, and by the end of the first forty minutes, I was convinced the critics had got this one wrong: what I was watching wasn’t good, it was borderline great.

And then the second half rolled along, and I had to gently downgrade my opinion.

To repeat: Brave is not a bad movie, and the second half is not bad.  It’s watchable and exciting and – unfortunately – deeply conventional.  Without delving too far into spoilers, I’ll say that directors Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman feel the need to recycle some old Disney standards.  There’s an evil witch, and a terrible curse, and a race against time, and a way-too happy ending.  Merida remains spunky and appealing (to the filmmakers’ credit, they never cheapen her emotional journey), but she’s in the service familiar material.

What Brave becomes, essentially, is a really great kids movie, with an emphasis on “kids.”  I’m reminded of DreamWorks’ wonderful How to Train Your Dragon, in a sense.  Both movies share similar settings (Scotland) and thematic tropes (young heroes struggling to define their self-worth in prejudiced societies), but where Brave loses some of its fizz at the end, How to Train Your Dragon starts out conventional and just gets deeper and more moving as it chugs along.  It sticks the landing, and Pixar should have spent a little more time trying to do likewise.  Maybe that’s the reason for the collective disappointment.  You got to slay ‘em with the ending, except Brave only scores a glancing blow.

Even though the film isn’t perfect, Disney’s four-disc Blu-ray set comes close.  It has two terrific viewing options – 2D or 3D.  The 2D version is flawless; textures are crisp and detailed, with subtle color gradations and no digital artifacts.  And the 3D version is almost as good.  Despite some minor ghosting and stutter effects, the picture retains its clarity and detail with little dimness or fading.  Between this and Fox’s Prometheus Blu-ray, 3D has come a long way on Blu-ray.  Both versions also get robust and full 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio tracks.

Then there are the features, and again, Disney delights.  We get a boatload: a commentary with Mark Andrews, co-director Steve Purcell, story supervisor Brian Larsen, and editor Nick Smith; two short films (“La Luna” and “The Legend of Mor’Du”); fifteen minutes of extended scenes; an alternate opening; the “Fallen Warriors” feature showcasing a montage of deleted shots; twelve behind-the-scene featurettes, covering everything from the film’s production to its implementation of Scottish culture; some promotional videos; and five art galleries.  The set also has DVD and digital copies.

As a Pixar movie, Brave is good but not great.  As a Blu-ray, it’s near perfect.  That’s a fair trade, I think.

Brave streets on November 13th.  Click HERE for Amazon’s listing.

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