Pixar finds themselves at a particularly vulnerable moment in the mythology that surrounds the studio. Since the release of the first “Toy Story,” they have released a string of movies that have been nothing less than dazzling, a series of films that have both commercial and critical hits. Last year’s release of “Cars 2” was the first moment where they seemed to be operating like any other Hollywood studio, putting commerce ahead of their craft, and for many fans of their work, it was a moment that rattled their faith.
Since we live in an age where each and every decision during the production of a motion picture can be scrutinized, often free of the context that led to the decision, much has been written about the process by which “Brave” emerged from what was originally known as “The Bow and the Bear.” Brenda Chapman was the first director on the picture, and she still gets a co-director credit as well as a “story by” in the credits. She was set to be the first female filmmaker to direct a feature for Pixar, and she absolutely deserves credit for getting this original fairy tale from her first idea to the final film that is about to open. But it’s hard to get upset about the process when we have no idea what happened that resulted in Mark Andrews and Steve Purcell getting co-director credits with her. After all, Andrews has been kicking around the business for years, working on the storyboard department for “The Iron Giant,” working as head of story for “Osmosis Jones,” “The Incredibles,” and “Ratatouille,” and directing the short film “One Man Band.” Purcell has paid his dues as well, creating the popular “Sam and Max” computer game series and working as one of the many screenwriters on the original “Cars.” Chapman put in years as an animator, working on TV shows like “The Real Ghost Busters” and “Heathcliff” before working in the story department on films like “Beauty and the Beast,” “The Lion King,” and “Chicken Run.” She was one of the directors of the very ambitious “The Prince Of Egypt,” and that was a milestone at the time, making her one of the few women to ever reach that sort of position on a major studio animated movie.
With all these voices in the mix, one would be forgiven for suspecting that the film would be a jumble of ideas and styles, but “Brave” is actually one of the most streamlined, direct stories that Pixar has ever told. It’s almost deceptively simple, a very simple narrative that feels like it unfolds in about 40 minutes, never pausing or digressing in any significant way. Some may criticize its laser focus, but I think it works well precisely because it seems to be in motion from the beginning to the end. In selling the film, Pixar has studiously avoided any of the narrative elements from the second half of the film, and in doing so, they may have erred on the side of caution. It’s one of those tricky marketing decisions that meant that I got to sit down to the film with its surprises intact, but many people I’ve spoken to are uninterested in the story that the film seems to be telling.
The film tells the story of Merida (Kelly Macdonald), a princess whose father Fergus (Billy Connolly) was instrumental in uniting the various clans of DunBroch, the part of Scotland where they live. In his younger days, Fergus lost a leg to Mor’du, a huge black bear that has become a legend in the years since that happened, and we get a glimpse of that at the start of the film. Merida grows up wild and strong, unwilling to accept the conventional role that her mother Elinor (Emma Thompson) plays in her father’s rule. When the age comes for her to become betrothed to one of sons of the other Lords in DunBroch, there is a major festival thrown to allow for them to compete for her hand. Lord Dingwall (Robbie Coltrane), Lord Macintosh (Craig Ferguson) and Lord MacGuffin (Kevin McKidd) all shows up with their first-borns in tow, and a contest is held. Merida sabotages the contest, though, refusing to let anyone claim her hand. When she and her mother butt heads over Merida’s behavior, Merida runs away, and that’s when the film kicks into a fairly unexpected narrative direction.
Here’s where you should bail out if you want to be totally surprised. I’ll just say that I liked the film quite a bit, as did my sons. There were kids around us, though, who were truly terrified by several major movements in the film, and there are elements in the film that may be too intense for younger viewers, particularly because of the characters involved. It is a smart, heartfelt film with a very simple message, and it is a nice return to form for Pixar. I’d rather see a dozen movies like “Brave” than another sequel, business considerations be damned. I love “Monsters Inc.,” but I don’t need to see a movie about those characters in college. That’s a corporate decision, not a creative one, just like “Cars 2,” and while I get why those choices are made, they are hard for me to support from a company that has prided itself on such strong fundamentals in storytelling over the years. “Brave” is a classically-styled fairy tale with a very simple universal moral heart, and I suspect Merida will take her rightful place as one of Pixar’s most beloved characters in years to come.
The film’s secret is where the movie goes from historically-based coming-of-age story to fairy tale. Merida, while stumbling around in the woods, upset and angry and fixated on how unfair her mother is being, comes across a small cottage where she meets a witch (Julie Walters) who offers her a solution to her problem. Merida wants her mother to change. In essence, she wants to be left alone to do exactly what she wants to do with no responsibility to anyone else. It’s a childish desire, and it makes sense that in a fairy tale, she’ll be granted that wish only to realize that it is not at all what she really needs. Her mother is changed, but not in the way Merida expected. She is instead transformed into a bear, and in the kingdom of DunBroch, there are few things more hated and feared than a bear. After all, Mor’du is still on the loose, still out there with a taste for royal blood, and once Elinor has been changed, Merida quickly realizes that she’s put her mother’s life in danger. She becomes responsible for her in a very direct way, the roles between parent and child upended completely, and the film begins to build towards an ending that would have made Walt Disney himself very happy. He wasn’t above taking a parent away in order to unbalance his characters, and there is a sense of real danger to the films made under Disney’s supervision that is absent in most modern films aimed at families. Pixar knows that you have to be willing to do the unthinkable, or there’s no real drama, and all the way to the very end of the film, anything could happen here.
Technically, the film is a marvel, as polished and stylish as anything they’ve done. The real-world setting manages to capture the flavor of Scotland beautifully, while the magical elements that start to work their way into the story are handled with a delicate touch, never overwhelming the story being told or making it seem improbable. Yes, Pixar has broken some new ground with Merida’s hair, an unruly mop with a life of its own, but the major under-the-hood revamp that the company just did on their proprietary software has resulted in a softer, more textural overall feeling to the world that’s been built. The mostly-human cast of the film are realized with a subtle touch, and the performance work is outstanding. The film has a brash, rude sense of humor at times, and it’s a lot of fun al the way up to the moment when things take a darker turn. Patrick Doyle’s score is based on traditional Scottish sounds and instrumentation, and it’s got a lush, gorgeous, shimmering sound that underlines the epic moments while painting subtle touches during the more tender moments. Kelly Macdonald’s performance is everything it needs to be, strong and emotional, and the connection between her and her mother is indelibly etched by her and Thompson. The film’s greatest strength comes from being emotionally direct and not layering on any post-modern spin. This is not a film like “Shrek” that spend its whole running time winking at the fairy tale form. Instead, it plays everything straight, and in today’s media landscape, that feels almost groundbreaking.
In addition to the feature, there is a short film attached called “La Luna” that is a few moments of pure animation magic, another strong example of how to use the short form to experiment, proof that few companies are as invested in short films as Pixar is. It can be hard work being one of the most reliable and best-loved brands in family entertainment, and Pixar has to be starting to experience some growing pains these days as some of the talents that have defined the company so far are starting to move on to try other things. “Brave” indicates that the best way for the company to continue to hold their place at the top of the industry is by taking a chance on new voices and new types of stories. This feels like an experiment in some ways, and one that has paid off handsomely. At a time when the entire industry seems to be running scared, making only the safest of safe bets, “Brave” is exactly that, and Pixar should reap the rewards from this act of creative courage in the weeks ahead.
“Brave” opens in theaters everywhere June 22, 2012.