Saturday, June 23, 2012

Mother and Child: BRAVE

Unlike previous Pixar films that started from a relatively small premise (the secret world of toys, an old man who wants to fly his house to South America, a rat who wants to become a chef, robots in love) and expanded to greater thematic and emotional import (dealing with change, dealing with disappointment, dealing with art, dealing with the fate of humanity), Brave starts with big sweeping vistas and finds in them a wee little fable about deeply relatable issues. Set against wide landscapes of forest and lake and a towering castle, the film finds not epic fantasy, but a small family drama. It’s an inversion of the Pixar formula and as such occasionally comes across as thinner and less ambitious than their usual output. (That’s the downside of putting out nearly a dozen masterpieces in less than twenty years.) It may be a quieter and less immediately gripping film than audiences might be expecting, but it works convincingly and entertainingly on its own terms.

The family at the center of Brave leads a vaguely Scottish kingdom made up of four clans. There’s a good-natured, bulky, muscular king (Billy Connolly) and his conscientious, compassionate queen (Emma Thompson). Their youngest kids, little, scampering redheaded triplet boys, are darling troublemakers, but their chief concern is their oldest child, a daughter named Merida (Kelly Macdonald). The other three clans are on their way to present their first-born sons in a competition for Merida’s hand, but the princess has no desire to be forced into anything as dull as marriage. She’s an adventurous, independent spirit who suffers through her mother’s lessons in poise and respectability in order to saddle up her trusty horse and gallop away from the castle on her days off to let her long, curly red hair flow in the wind as she enjoys archery, rock-climbing, and wilderness exploration. She’s talented and spirited, but not the proper lady that her mother hopes for her to become.

The plot of the movie involves the way Merida’s desires for her future conflict with her mother’s. This draws in all sorts of traditional fairy tale elements, from wispy forest spirits that just might lead you to your destiny, a daffy witch (Julie Walters) and her bubbling cauldron of spells destined to go wrong, ancient curses, powerful legends, and potential turmoil in the kingdom egged on by the outsized egos of the three proud men (Robbie Coltrane, Kevin McKidd, and Craig Ferguson) who would rather the princess marry one of their sons as generations of princesses have before them. But all of this is only background for the main focus on a mother-daughter relationship and the way deeply felt disagreements could escalate past exasperation and hurt feelings into situations where real harm can be done. Words are said and actions are taken that are quickly regretted and leave both mother and daughter in tears. Their problems feel irresolvable, but the moving through line of emotional truth here is the way the movie is built around this mother and daughter learning to understand and love each other more fully, differing points of view and all.

This tight focus turns the film into what is essentially a two-character show. All of the others – from the adorable, dialogue-free, triplets, to the raucous clan leaders and their sons, to the forest witch and her talking bird – are there mostly to move things along and provide background interest. Functionally, this strong de-emphasis on the ensemble heightens a fable-like simplicity of tone and emotion. There’s no real villain here, only the ticking-clock of a curse that falls on mother and daughter in the aftermath of a particularly wounding argument. They have to learn to work together, empower each other to take advantage of their individual and collective strengths and weaknesses in order to pull through, mending the powerfully expressed rift in their relationship as they go. What a wonderful female-centric plot that gives full weight to their emotions and decisions and pushes most else to the side. The central metaphor here is potent and the resolution is drawn-out to a deeply moving emotional punch.

But I can’t quite figure out why, with such an effective centerpiece, the movie as a whole feels somewhat slight. A factor could be the humor, which occasionally rings too broad for the more serious plot, especially when said humor involves men losing their kilts. Other times, though, the humor, especially warm, subtle physical moments and sweet dialogue, is nicely amusing. Perhaps the biggest problem is simply that it has to fight against the perception of Pixar perfection. The fact of the matter is that, even though it can’t live up to the highest highs Pixar has had, it’s still a remarkably solid piece of work that moves with great energy and great feeling with a nicely nuanced portrayal of mother-daughter relationships. There are moments where characters just look at each other, times where scenes are held just a beat longer than expected. In them we find lovely little moments that help sell the emotion behind it all.

If it weren’t a Pixar movie, especially a Pixar movie following up the studio’s first perceived creative misstep, the sometimes-fun, but awfully minor Cars 2, it could be easier to see Brave for what it is: a better-than-average family movie that’s a touch simplistic and with a few misguided jokes, but with emotionality so strong, main characters so compelling, and a core conflict so well-observed. It’s also an animated film with a gorgeously rendered environment beautifully animated in inviting and wondrous ways. Here the lush green fields and forest, the deep blue sea, and the warm castle of flickering flame on cobblestone are a wonderfully comfortable setting imbued with just enough magic and possibility to pull off the more fantastical elements of the story. (It’s one of the best-looking films of the year, though if you see it in weirdly dark and muddy 3D you might not know it.) And in the center of it all there’s Merida and her family, the real focus of the film and the film’s strongest element by far. They’re well cast with actors who have lovely musical accents and are charmingly animated so that they feel so lovable, so warm and funny and real, that they ground the whole thing with a very strong rooting interest.

But this is a Pixar movie and it is not a total masterpiece. And that’s too bad, but it’s hardly a deal breaker and no good reason to feel disappointed. The behind the scenes shuffling, which has resulted in a movie with director’s credits for Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman and a co-director's credit for Steve Purcell (all first-time Pixar directors, though Chapman’s the only one who has directed previously with Dreamworks Animation’s first feature, The Prince of Egypt), may explain some of the diffuse vision and the reliance on more convention than the brightly inventive studio is usually up to. But whoever is responsible for the moments between Merida and her mother deserves much praise, for those moments of great feeling and nuance, more than anything else, are what set this movie comfortably above its immediate competition from other American animation studios. After all, this is a film that tells a fresh legend, no small feat. And, like all good legends, this one rings with truth.

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