Friday, January 18, 2013

Pixar's Fairy Tale

Directed by Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman
Co-directed by Steve Purcell
Produced by Katherine Sarafian
Screenplay by Mark Andrews, Brenda Chapman, Irene Mecchi and Steve Purcell

Pixar often gets praise for their storytelling, appropriate use of emotion and their memorable characters. One thing that I don’t see Pixar getting acclaim for is their ability to stay away from a formula. If they do have a formula, then it’s the formula of trying new things with each film. The Pixar films don’t follow the same narrative style, which is something you can’t say about a Disney film that was produced during the so-called Renaissance or most of the earlier DreamWorks computer animated films.

Brave is Pixar’s first foray into the fairy tale genre, one that inspired more skepticism than excitement. Of course, audiences got their fairy tale fix time and time again with many Disney animated films, most recently with The Princess and the Frog and Tangled. Pixar doing a fairy tale might’ve upset some because it was a genre that Disney had done many times before, but Pixar wasn’t adapting a classic. Instead, they were writing their own that was in the vein of the Grimm fairy tales and many others.

Brave began life as a personal story by Brenda Chapman, one based on her own experiences as a mother. Brave already goes against the tropes we saw in other fairy tale adaptations, and we have a mother and father who aren’t absent. In fact, Princess Merida’s family is quite complete. Merida may be rebellious and bratty, but she has every reason to be that way. She’s an adventurous and free-spirited young woman who is restrained by her mother’s staunch traditionalist ways.

What elevated this story for me was the fact that both Merida and Queen Elinor are highly flawed, but are both alike in many ways. Merida is essentially what Elinor once was, both are close-minded in their own way. Their one-way problems are looked at during the film’s much-criticized second and third acts, where Merida accidentally turns her mother into a bear and must undo the curse. To me, this is no story about bravery, but rather a story about understanding and realizing one's mistakes. Brave was not a suitable title for this film; the working title, The Bear and the Bow, was far superior. It said more about our leads and the overall story. Brave makes the picture sound like an action-adventure epic, it is anything but.

Brave has its story and leads down pat, with barely any glaring flaws. Outside of the two leads and the overall premise come a few problems, which wasn’t a first for Pixar. I firmly believe that the films made from the first Toy Story up until the third one are excellence, with only minor little flaws like any film (perfection and film don't go in the same sentence). Then came that one film they did after Toy Story 3, and to say it bluntly, it had myriad problems. I was okay with this, because Pixar can’t keep making excellent movies all the time. Once in a while, you can make a mistake or two.

Most of Brave’s problems, I suspect, are a result of what it went through: The highly controversial director change that occurred eighteen months before the film’s release date.

Mark Andrews, who ended up replacing Chapman, was a longtime consultant on the project given his interest in Scottish culture. Andrews certainly kept the story tighter than what’s given to you in the usual American animated feature, but his vision might clash with what Chapman had in mind. I can’t say that he ruined or went against her vision, because we don’t know what her complete version was like. Let’s stop assuming.

The biggest problem with Brave, for me, is the lack of those long quiet stretches that define the best animated features. Up, for a recent example, had plenty of them. Sequences where the body language plays out with no dialogue adds so much to a film, and Brave could’ve used more of this. Brave is not obnoxious by any means, but there’s hardly any moment where the film takes a real breather. It’s on the move and you find yourself sitting through the next sequence in no time at all.

Brave certainly could’ve benefited from a longer running time. The film runs a pretty quick 93 minutes, which is the norm for Pixar films or any American animated feature, but this film could’ve used another ten minutes. Looking at some of the Blu-ray supplemental features, I believe what was cut from the film should’ve been kept. Sequences that were deemed a little too long, such as passages with extended dialogue and other things, got trimmed. That being said, the pacing for the film is just too quick. The other Pixar films have the right pacing, with enough excitement and quiet moments to make for a well-rounded picture.

My other gripe is how everything outside of Merida and Elinor’s quest in the second half is handled. In the course of two days, why does King Fergus never check on Elinor? Sure, he’s busy keeping the rival clans from losing it, but he could’ve at least poked into her room to see if she was okay after he believed a bear was in the castle. The men got off the tower in the middle of the night, what exactly were they doing the next day? King Fergus simply forgot about Elinor for a whole day? Merida too?

The impending war between the clans is also muted. A deleted sequence where Merida and Elinor sneak back into the castle showed men fighting. The kingdom of DunBroch was a war zone, but this was heavily simplified to the clans all being in one room all ready to lunge at each other’s throats. Why this change was made baffles me, the original would’ve shown that things were certainly getting worse back at the castle, just in time for Merida to show up. Without this, it feels a bit anticlimactic.

Again, this leads me to believe that the film was rushed after the director change. Mark Andrews believes Pixar could make animated films at a much faster rate, so you can argue that he rushed this film, wanting to get the thing out by June 2012. Maybe a delay would've sufficed so more time could be spent fixing errors, but that would've left this past year Pixar-less. Also, if the story was problematic, how come these problems weren't solved before production began on the film? Pixar was known for excising sequences and reworking elements that didn't work early on in pre-production. With this film and the one before it, Pixar actually began trimming fully animated sequences. During production no less.

Those are Brave’s only problems, but they don’t severely stab the story in its sides. The writing is good too, hardly any dumb humor (with maybe a few exceptions) or the sort of cliches that make the adults in the audience want to put a pistol to their head. Pixar avoids this because they don’t want to talk down to anyone in the audience, whether they are 7 or 77 years old. In this film, however, they do tend to go a little too close to those conventions. The only problem with the humor is that it's sometimes there for the sake of being there, especially when it's not needed. There's a little too much comic relief when Elinor becomes a bear. I would've preferred sequences where, again, the body language did the talking and not comic relief.

I still give Andrews credit. He had to complete something that wasn’t finished and was supposedly problematic (in a sort of Jan Pinkava’s Ratatouille kind of way) in eighteen months, so obviously there would be a few problems present in the finished film. This is no different from another animated feature that goes through that. Andrews, however, might not have been the best man to do it given his rather interesting views on how animation should be done at Pixar. That being said, Andrews did a good enough job, but a lot of the brilliance came from Chapman.

It's a case of two different visions clashing on one film: Andrews went for a film with a quick pace and one that would entertain with a dose of heart, while Chapman aimed for a film that seemed deeper and maybe even more profound. I'm not knocking Andrews, because if he was given a film to direct on his own that was suited to his style, he'd probably ace it. From what I gather, the fairy tale genre isn't his thing. The difference of styles can be a little frustrating.

Brave isn't, however, a terribly problematic film in the end. For a film that went through all this, it turned out to be pretty damn good. I'll say it again, it was pretty damn good. Not mediocre or average, I felt it was a great endeavor.

Instead of a good-vs.-evil plot, Brave simply has two leads who are their own worst enemies. Both are polar opposites, and the story focuses on the relationship between the two along with a standard "race against time" plot. When's the last time a mainstream animated feature was about a mother-daughter relationship? Pixar covered the parent-child theme before with Finding Nemo, but that film was different in its own way. Nemo was simply about a father who let his fear get the better of him, and in turn, he lost his son.

Brave doesn't have any power-hungry or evil villains, unlike some fairy tales. No menacing warlord looking to rule Scotland or a dastardly witch who wants to kill someone. Brave has a witch in it, but a witch who is merely an old woman who is trying to right her wrongs, an eccentric hag who would rather be a woodcarver. Certainly after what happened to Mor'du and others, as she quickly puts it ("Too many unsatisfied customers!"), she takes on this new life.

Mor'du is no central villain either, he's just there to show the consequences of Merida's actions. Mor'du was once a villain, but is a suffering soul, simply waiting to be released and put out of his misery. This is beautifully demonstrated after the demonic bear is crushed, and it just adds more to the film's setting and the world around the characters. This leads to the magic aspect of the film. There's magic in the film, but it's woven into the setting rather than being something major. The will o' the wisps lead beings to their fate, but we know very little about the actual wisps. This world is still interesting and intriguing, and little by little, we start to find out more about the magical elements of the film. Even though there aren't many, they still use a conservative amount. I personally would've liked to have seen more, and perhaps more backstory on these elements, but what we got is fine enough.

The Blu-ray and DVD includes a short film titled The Legend of Mor'du, a short that was stylized to look like the beautiful concept art you'd normally see for an animated film today. When watching the short, I felt that it would've worked well in the film and would've given more depth to Mor'du; in turn it would've raised the stakes when Merida gave her mother the spell. In the film, Elinor quickly tells Merida about the said prince. This way, we don't know the prince became the demon bear. (Though that could've been highly predictable to some.)

The Legend of Mor'du also has its fair share of dark and mildly violent moments, which also would've worked well in the film. Brave on its own fits the typical Pixar bill: It has its moments that will frighten younger audiences, but they're there because without them the stakes are diluted. The film's darkest moments concern Mor'du. He's a killing machine that weighs a ton, that alone says a lot. Second of all, there's a sequence where Merida encounters him in the ruins of the old kingdom where everything is dark.

I love these kinds of sequences because they show that the studio is not going to pull punches. When a story calls for that sort of thing, they go through with it. Then you have the scenes where Queen Elinor loses her humanity and acts like a bear. It's another plot point that raises the stakes; and one of my other favorite things about the film. It's bad enough that Merida must undo all this while her mother tries to get used to her new form; she could easily be killed in this situation. That way, it's not completely predictable when the two journey to undo everything that has happened. Again, that's what I like about Pixar. They'll throw in a surprise like this so we don't wait for the next sequence to come without any kick.

Now what about that comic relief? It's unexpectedly a small problem in the film, which is odd considering that Pixar was able to balance comedy and drama in their other films. Brave has a few moments that are a bit questionable for a Pixar film, small things like the triplets booger gag. Was there a point to even have this in the film? It felt like a halfhearted attempt to get kids to laugh. There is enough humor in the film to make kids laugh, and Pixar doesn't try to make kids laugh. They try to make everyone laugh.

Other comic relief bits that didn't work for me were the ones with the witch; particularly the "cauldron answering machine" scene. I don't like overly modern references in period pieces (i.e. Tangled's "best day everrrrr..." dialogue), so that joke was terribly out of place. Now it's possible that this witch can travel through time (like Merlin in The Sword in the Stone) so she knows how an answering machine works, but if that isn't the case, the joke just doesn't do it for me. That wouldn't be out of place in something like a Shrek film, so that's not the kind of humor I want to see coming out of a Pixar film.

I suspect some of the weaker jokes come from Andrews, who seemed to be all for lots of comic relief. We also get a good amount of a slapstick-heavy sequences with the male characters, which are actually funny. The first brawl sequence when the clans arrive at the DunBroch kingdom is hilarious. It's very broad, but it never contradicts the naturalism of the film. Best of all, it's long enough so it doesn't lose its luster and it ends with a great gag: Elinor quietly breaking up the fighting and dragging King Fergus and the three lords by their ears!

Elinor turning into a bear calls for a lot of potential comedy, but the writers somewhat overdo it and add it to scenes where it's not necessary. After the transformation, there should've some room for drama rather than Elinor's funny reactions. The best humor is saved for the fishing sequence, where it's quietly used as a way to show Elinor's own shortcomings. The idea is funny as well; a queen with a proper demeanor trying something she'd never dream of doing. It's as effective as Merida being forced to be like her mother, as demonstrated wonderfully in the film's first act montage.

Maybe I might sound like I'm not for comic relief, but most of it works in the film. There's just some times in the film where I wished it wasn't there, scenes where we could've had something else. Again, I think a longer running time would've sufficed and maybe there would be a much more even balance.

One the best elements of the film is the way it's presented. I'm not talking about the overall look of the film, it's gorgeous, obviously. This is Pixar, of course it's going to be a visual knock-out. The Scottish highlands were stunning, and the world of these characters was handled perfectly from the kingdom design to the magical elements. Enough said there.

The character designs are what made it for me. Since The Incredibles, Pixar has pushed the boundary for human character design in computer animation after the questionable results seen in their earlier films. When I was younger, I would often have a problem with the way the humans were done in something like Toy Story, but this was before I knew about the technical limitations of the time. The Incredibles stunned 12-year-old me back when it opened, and not one moment did I feel that the humans looked off in any way. They looked and felt like human beings, rather than robots.

Pixar continued to break new ground with Ratatouille, and pushed for more abstract designs in Up. Brave has tons of that as well. Merida's hair alone has gotten lots of praise, but the design says so much about the characters and their personalities. It's just so brilliant, I can't even define it. Just look at Queen Elinor and how she's presented. It's royal and serious, but also very motherly and caring. King Fergus' design is definitely suggests his outgoing and riotous demeanor, and his massive size sums it up while adding a fun side to the character. The lords and their respective sons have such crazy designs that are so brilliant, they just ooze with personality. Even the animals are handled well. Merida's steed Angus is bulky but majestic. Mor'du moves like a brainless killing machine, while the animators try their hardest to make Bear Elinor act proper while still being a clumsy animal. The witch's loudmouth crow moves and acts like it's wired. The bear triplets' designs are a little too exaggerated (the heads are a little too big if you ask me), the only weak point in terms of the animation.

Musically, Brave is a winner. A score does so much for an animated film, and Patrick Doyle's work is another home run hitter. It appropriately ties Celtic influences with an overall fantasy-esque tone, but it's the songs that really add to it. Sometimes, the best songs in an animated film are the ones that are sung offscreen. Disney has quite a few great examples, such as the music for Dumbo and Bambi, proving that not every animated film has to have the characters themselves singing.

"Touch the Sky" and "Into the Open Air" are sung by Julie Fowlis and they fit the imagery and mood of the film so well, there's just something about them that ties in perfectly with the atmosphere. Birdy and Mumford & Sons' end credits number "Learn Me Right" is also good. All three are very Celtic-inspired, but never feel fake. In fact, Fowlis' vocals almost come off as Merida singing in her mind. It reminded me of how Disney uses singing voices for their characters (for the most part), but this isn't the case. It just somewhat felt like that to me. The beautiful "Noble Maiden Fair" is sung entirely in Gaelic, as pieces of it are used in the film itself. It's one of the few "quiet moments" that the film could've used a little more of. Last but not least is an actual musical number, performed by King Fergus (voiced by Billy Connolly of course), "The Song of Mor'du". Short, fun and amusing, it only adds to the comic nature of his character.

So visually, musically and story-wise, Brave succeeded. Brave is not any signal of Pixar's downfall, as it's not going to happen. Brave just happened to be a production that went through a lot of issues, and it's obvious that the effects of that would be existent in the first place. There are numerous Disney animated films that were troubled productions, and you can very much tell. Brave is no different, but what's really good in it tends to really overshadow these small problems. The great things on display in the film show why Pixar is lauded.

It's easy for our sensationalist media to jump the gun and focus on the film's problems and the unpleasant studio politics surrounding it. Critics and skeptics can have a fun time picking apart Pixar and reveling in their apparent "downfall". Had Disney or DreamWorks or someone else made this film, it wouldn't be as criticized as much.

I know Pixar is a studio and not a team of invincible gods of perfection. I bet they know that too. Brave being flawed is no big deal, and I personally admire the film. Brave is a damn good film and it sure has a lot more depth and substance than a lot of the other current crowd-pleasing animated films out there. Sure it isn't the year's best animated film in my eyes (I felt Disney's Wreck-It Ralph and Laika's ParaNorman were superior), but it could've been a far worse film given what it went through before hitting the silver screen.

Traditional and simplistic but never without heart and respect for the audience, Brave is another satisfying entry from the folks at Emeryville.

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