Pixar and trust – for many, those two words are synonymous. Since November 22, 1995, when Pixar produced Toy Story, audiences have trusted in the studio to tell great stories executed with stunning presentation. Pixar greats include The Incredibles, Ratatouille, and WALL-E, and although Toy Story still remains one my favorite films of all time, I could go on to name practically all of them as examples of Pixar’s quality (with the exception of Toy Story 2; I have no idea why some people enjoy that more than the first). But what would be the point of that? Everyone knows Pixar’s legacy at this point.
Each of those films presented characters that we cared about, placed in situations that audiences were invested in. It wasn’t until Cars that most people’s personal log of history deemed a Pixar film a misstep. And while I agree for the most part that the film was not up to par with the rest of the Pixar pantheon, the film did not disappoint in filling the studio’s wallet, making an estimated 5 billion dollars from merchandise alone. So from the company’s standpoint, Cars 2 was a no-brainer.
The fact that the franchise is studio head John Lasseter’s baby probably didn’t hurt, either. The Toy Story franchise is his creation, too, and that got a trilogy – so who’s to say Cars 3 isn’t turning the corner now? Lasseter also directed A Bug’s Life, which didn’t get a sequel, but who likes bugs anyhow. Anyway, after Cars 2 audiences began to lose trust in Pixar, leaving people like to think that perhaps Pixar sequels are cursed. Good thing Monsters University doesn’t have a 2 attached to it, it being a prequel and all.
The studio moved forward with this financial mindset in place and created Brave, a film which was helmed by three different writer/directors over the course of its production. First was Brenda Chapman, director of The Prince of Egypt, who had initially set most of the movie in a snowy environment. She was later replaced due to creative differences by Mark Andrews, director of the Pixar short One Man Band, who promptly got rid of the wintry setting. Steve Purcell, from Sam & Max fame, was also brought in to co-direct alongside Andrews and Chapman.
Despite this managerial muddle, Brave is still the most technically ambitious Pixar film since Finding Nemo. The main character, Merida, is a redhead comprised of 1,500 individually sculpted curves and distinct points in a three-dimensional space that are programmed to bounce and interact in relation to one another via a new software system. Likewise, the shots in the films are composed wonderfully, perfectly showcasing the rolling Scottish highlands. Indeed, this is the best-looking Pixar film to date, requiring a fundamental rewrite of Pixar’s animation technology to get through production.
Yet story-wise it is the most contained of Pixar’s library, sporting a plot more comparable to their short films. Brave is a simple parable – a first for Pixar. This is not a bad thing per se, but film’s strange story structure hurts the overall narrative. I loved the cold opening of of Brave – it was emotional, funny, and epic, ending with the title booming onto the screen. It was the perfect set-up for the film, but unfortunately Brave did not proceed to deliver on all of its intriguing premises.
Having had the fortune to see the film twice, I think I can identify the film’s downfall. The first act of the film, which totals up to about 40 minutes of footage, is Pixar-great. However, the second act, which comes in at 30 minutes, is decidedly subpar. And it’s not because of it being “too Disney;” I don’t even understand how that’s a criticism since Disney animation has always been great, but I digress.
No, the fault of the second half of the film is that it does not deliver on the setups of the first half. For example, Merida’s archery skills only turns out to be a small detail of her character. Moreover, there is no epic journey to embark on or battle to be invested in – only Merida wandering in the woods trying to figure out how to solve the film’s central conflict. The third act, thankfully, swings in with just 20 minutes left and gives the story a fast-paced, attention grabbing, emotional conclusion. Unfortunately, this abrupt improvement makes the second act feel even more like filler, leaving the characters to quietly go through the motions.
Despite these issues I still enjoyed Brave, because I understood it for what it is. It’s a fairy tale, with a small cast of grounded characters whose voice actors give performances that are authentic and full of heart (with Kelly Macdonald, Billy Connolly, Emma Thompson, and Craig Ferguson starring, what more could you expect?). Patrick Doyle’s soundtrack is also in line with the film’s tone and authenticity, lending to its charm.
Sure it’s predicable, but that’s what parables are. The fact is that none of the movie’s faults are film-breaking, and at the end of the day, it’s still a solid tale – a story which I liked in spite its generally conservative nature. Brave made me feel compassion, grief, and excitement; I constantly wanted to see where the characters in the film ended up, and had a genuinely enjoyable time along the way.
Verdict: Movie Win
A Note on La Luna – La Luna is the short film that plays before Brave in theaters. Directed by Enrico Casarosa, a native-born Italian whose upbringing was obviously a big influence on La Luna. The three characters, a grandfather, a father, and a son, represent three generations of men from one family who drift out into the sea on a little rowboat.
The animation in this short was actually painted over because the director didn’t want that too-perfect computer-generated look, giving it an overall impressionist feel to the motion. Strangely, I couldn’t help but see connections to Nintendo video games in this film. The water and babble-speak seemed to echo Zelda: The Wind Waker, and the moon reminded me of Super Mario Galaxy; I would be very surprised if the team hadn’t seen those games before designing the film’s aesthetics. In any case, La Luna is a truly attractive film to look at.
La Luna tells an amusing tale of characters to whom I became emotionally attached. This, combined with the stunning visuals, makes for a short worth the price of admission alone. La Luna is a beautiful piece of animated storytelling, and easily stands as my favorite Pixar short to date; I look forward to more from Enrico Casarosa as he writes the script for the 2014 Pixar film The Good Dinosaur.