Thursday, June 14, 2012

Review of Disney/Pixar's Brave (no spoilers)

Note: this review was written before Brave was out in theaters, but Disney VISA card holders were invited to see it (there were only limited slots, as we shared a theater with members of the press).

Verdict: mixed. It's a different turn for Pixar. That's been said before. And so has this prediction: this movie will make less money than its Pixar predecessors. Despite no one being able to call correctly when Pixar will finally stumble - they don't seem to ever stumble - I'm still going to declare that this latest effort is not as powerful, not as heart-warming, not as groundbreaking, and not as wide-ranging (in terms of appealing to all members of the audience) as previous Pixar movies. 

Be aware that I'm fighting an internal curse of some sort. Pretty much NONE of the Pixar movies has impressed me overly on first watching. A few bored me on occasion. The majority left me feeling like the story could have been stronger, or the movie better edited. It's always something. Yet for all that, I do always leave Pixar movies feeling like they effectively tugged at my heartstrings. They've always been good at emotion even if I thought other parts of the movie were lacking. I was sobbing along with the rest of the theater at Toy Story 3 (a movie that was strong all around, even on first viewing).

Brave doesn't stack up in my view on the emotional level. Partly that's because the movie concerns mother-daughter relationships, and I'm neither of those. But part of it is also that the movie seemed generic at times, particularly with regard to the plot. Maybe it's me, but I knew at literally every single turn what was going to happen next, and then lo and behold, it did happen.The movie telegraphs its moves perhaps too clearly. (By the way, this is not because I read up on the plot or watched previews; the only preview I ever saw was a single archery scene that gave away nothing of the plot).

There were definitely characters, moments, and events that I liked. I never warmed up to the main heroine as much as I think the movie wanted me to, though. We've seen rebellious kids before (think Nemo), but that animated fish had a younger, more vulnerable side. That's lacking in Merida. That's altogether appropriate--she's older than Nemo--but it also means she simply wasn't as endearing to me.

As I drove home, I mused to my wife that the problem might well be the setting and milieu. I have no problem with Scotland and think it's a fine country (and culture) in which to set a movie or cartoon. But the world of Brave is a human world, drawn in CGI animation that is meant to look photo-realistic. Add all of that together, and what you get is something that COULD have been done as a live-action movie.

This is not the typical Pixar formula. The winning mix until now has been to put us somewhere we can't be normally with a live action movie: the sewers of Paris, the East Australian Current, the colorful streets of Monstropolis, the toybox with living playthings, or a desert populated by talking cars. Those movies worked as animated movies because they had to be animated. Live action wouldn't have worked.

Not so Brave. The setting, plot, and characters "feel" like a live-action movie, and frankly so does the emotional punch as a result. Which is to say, not as visceral as most Pixar movies, at least for me.

It's still a good movie. It's just a conventional movie, and usually Pixar movies don't feel conventional to me.

Which brings us back to the main point: I'm not necessarily the target audience here, so you need a grain of salt when you read my review. Is this a "chick flick"? I guess arguably it is, though with the trappings of an action movie (including some scary scenes, a few animated derrieres, and a somewhat-shocking PG rating for a Disney animated movie).

I'm sure I'll see it again (on DVD), and I'm sure it will grow on me more. Pixar movies always do. But this one is starting from the weakest position yet, and thus has further to climb before I consider it as successful as the other Pixar films.

Kevin Yee is the author of numerous independent Disney books, including the popular Walt Disney World Earbook series and Walt Disney World Hidden History.