Monday, February 18, 2013

DVD of the Week: Brave

Anecdotally, Pixar's magic aura seems to have been punctured in the last couple of years. There was definitely a time they could do no wrong in the critical eye, but no matter how good Toy Story 3 was - and it was - it also seemed to mark a shift away from audacious concept films about cute robots or old men with death-wishes, and into safer, more well-traveled territory. Cars 2 became the first Pixar film I could recall that critics got their teeth into, and the announcement of more sequels (well Monsters University is a prequel, but you get the point) had left me wondering if some of the magic was gone. And then Brave opened to middling reviews, and I didn't even rush to see, finally catching it this weekend.

Brave is the story of Merida, a heroine in the modern-day Disney Princess mold; feisty, determined and constrained by circumstances she needs to change. In this case, the local tradition that she should marry one of the sons of the neighboring tribes, to ensure peace in a Mythical Scotland full of the expected stereotypes, kilts, caber-tossing, comedy violence and lots and lots of red hair. The main point of conflict is Merida's mother, determined that her daughter should grow up be a strong future queen and who is the films voice of reason - this is how things are, it may suck but the alternative is bloodshed and destruction. Merida of course rebels, magic curses happen, and shenanigans ensue.

I can see why Brave doesn't get the round of applause that usually accompanies Pixar films and I think the main reason is that whilst it is a slick, well made movie with all-ages appeal, it lacks the emotional gut-punch that Pixar have brought to many of their films and people have come to expect. I can't watch the beginning of Up with crying, and sections of Wall-E, and Toy Story 2 & 3 choke me up. Finding NemoRatatouille and The Incredibles both put a strong family dynamic at their core that give the film their central element of risk. Brave's however is muddled - the mother-daughter story is one, the wider unity of the kingdom is one, the big, angry evil bear is another - and they never quite gel together, leaving the story oddly unfocused.

It's not a bad film - really, it's not. It's a good film, a film I enjoyed, a film I would happily watch again. Despite having a female lead it kept a 10 year old boy happily engrossed - and I know that shouldn't matter but for 10-year-old boys it does. But it's lack of a firm center robs of it any emotional power that I think it needed. On top that, the point I mentioned earlier about Merida being a "Disney Princess" - a term I in no way mean negatively - means the the beats of the story are overly familiar, in a pretty generic setting.

Finally, it's just not as good as Tangled, which also features a feisty heroine with big hair and a complicated mother-daughter relationship.

Next up from Pixar is Monsters University, a trailer of which on the disc was very promising. And Brave is certainly a lot better than Cars 2. But it is, sadly, not up the ridiculously high standard I've come to expect, leaving me forced to say "Good. But not good enough."