By Brian Lafferty
Catching up on a few I missed.
August 16, 2012 (San Diego) – Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs introduced the first Disney Princess. Later Disney Princesses included, among others, Cinderella, Aurora (Sleeping Beauty), Belle (Beauty and the Beast), and Rapunzel (Tangled). It took seventeen years after Toy Story in 1995, but Pixar finally decided to get in the game with Brave, their newest film and first to feature a female leading character.
Kelly Macdonald (best known right now for her role as Irish immigrant Margaret Schroeder in HBO's Boardwalk Empire) voices Merida, the first Pixar Princess. Her mother, Elinor (Emma Thompson), grooms her to be Scotland's next Princess, and tries to marry her off in the interests of peace. The tomboyish Merida rebels. After running away, a Will o'the Wisp (which, according to legend, leads a person to their fate) takes her to a witch, who gives her a dessert that she claims will solve her problem. Unfortunately, the solution is not what she desires; her mother turns into a bear, a curse that will be permanent unless she figures out the Witch's cryptic clue and solves it in two days.
Pixar has been renowned for their animation. What's often overlooked is their voice casting. The actors are celebrities and stars, but they are cast because they fit their characters so well, that no other actor would do. I can't imagine anyone but Tom Hanks voicing Woody, Billy Crystal as Mike Wazowski, and Ed Asner as Carl Fredricksen.
The voice actors in Brave are mostly from Scotland, with a few others from England. Kelly Macdonald's voice as Merida is tomboyish and rebellious. You can't have a film like Brave without Billy Connolly. He was born to voice Fergus. Boisterous, virile, and fearless, his voice alone adds pep and masculinity that counterbalances the film's feminine and "princess" elements. The Scottish accents may be a little thick for very young audiences to understand, but for everyone else, they add a genuine flavor to the setting.
Brave relies heavily on slapstick for laughs, more so than any other Pixar film I've seen. It's unusual to see so much comic violence. Thankfully, it's mostly funny. The kids in the theater thought it was hilarious. Being much older, and obviously having seen a lot more movies, these gags were a bit obvious. Pixar could have been more creative. What was on the screen is fine and funny, but I doubt I'll be as forgiving I see the same laxness in their next film.
I had mixed feelings about the animation. It has a rough, rustic texture, with lots of green. The lighting design mimics natural lighting. The animators sprinkle the dark-toned and slightly dank castle interiors with orangish glows that emanate from the torches. Nighttime scenes are painted with an eerily dark blue that combines with the dark green forests to create a tense undercurrent.
This naturalism works, but to a point. Sometimes scenes are so dimly lit that it can be tough to see everything if you don't pay close attention. Even when it's daylight outdoors, it looks unattractive. So while the lighting design accurately reflects the time period, it does so at an aesthetic price.
(I should point out, though, that a friend of mine who attended the screening with me saw the film again at a different theater, and said the film looked brighter. I suspect the projector wasn’t working well during the screening.)
When I watch a Pixar film, I can count on a high emotional investment in its characters. That's because the good folks know how to write emotionally rich and thoroughly-developed characters. Brave is populated with interesting people, but they barely have enough depth to sustain interest. The similarly underdeveloped story tells me this film might have been rushed.
Brave is a good movie, but it isn't special. It could have been made by anyone. When I left the theater after watching Finding Nemo almost ten years ago, I felt I saw a masterpiece, and couldn’t wait for the next Pixar film. As I got into the car following the Brave screening, I worried that Pixar might be getting dangerously complacent. I was happy I saw Brave, but instead of excited anticipation for the next Pixar film, I felt apprehension.
A Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures release. Directors: Mark Andrews, Brenda Chapman, and Steve Purcell. Screenplay: Brenda Chapman, Mark Andrews, Steve Purcell, and Irene Mecchi. Original Music: Patrick Doyle. Cast: Kelly Macdonald, Billy Connolly, Emma Thompson, Julie Walters, Robbie Coltrane, Kevin McKidd, and Craig Ferguson. 93 minutes. Rated PG.