views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

Brave (PG)
Odeon, Holloway
5th August 2012

★★★★☆

It's fair to say Pixar have had a lot of flack with Brave. "Cuh!" the detractors cry. "They've not been bought by Disney for five minutes when they decide to sell out and do a princess film!"

The first assumption is that princess films are bad when, on the whole, they aren't. Granted, the House of Mouse lost its way around the turn of the millennium, but The Frog Princess represented a return to form and can sit alongside some of the best in the canon. The second assumption is that this is a princess film in the same vein as any of the others and, put bluntly, it isn't at all.

Sure, the headstrong Merida (Kelly Macdonald), totally uninterested in her royal heritage mirrors The Little Mermaid's Ariel. And there are nods to other classic Walt creations, even Robin Hood's famous splitting the arrow. There's nothing too innovative about taking a girl who wants to walk her own path and having her realise that, with great power comes great responsibility. But Pixar's brilliance is in the total subversion and even abandonment of these ideals after the first half hour.

This is a spoiler-free review and, certainly, the UK trailers focus largely on the inital 30 minutes of the film. Suffice to say, Princess Merida is much more of a tomboy than her mother Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson) would like. She gets on well with her dad, King Fergus (Billy Connolly) and her triplet younger brothers, Hamish, Harris and Hubert. When called upon to marry a suitor and keep peace between the four clans in the land, she rebels and sets out to change her fate.

So yes, it's a princess film, but it's also not - or at least incredibly genre-bending. It's a much more truthful coming-of-age, bonding film than any of the previous Disney offerings. Take, for example, the classic princess story trope of the wicked stepmother, or entirely absent female presence as seen in Snow White (or Cinderella or The Little Mermaid or 20 others) and Aladdin (or Beauty and the Beast or The Hunchback of Notre Dame or another 20) respectively. Here, it's all about the matriarchy, with Elinor benevolent, intelligent, beautiful and caring - if authoritarian. Just one small way in which traditional ideas are undermined to brilliant effect. Frankly, I could write an essay on it.

It's also worth noting that this is the first time Pixar themselves have actually put a girl in the lead. Outside of, say, Jessie The Cowgirl's arc in Toy Story 2, it's the first in-depth female character study they've ever done. I'm sure it would have been easier for them to have taken on a bunch of anthropomorphic shoes or peas or chickens, but they haven't. Despite the fictional period setting and wild magic, this is a very human story with a very human centre which provides another refreshing diversion from the norm from a company that have constantly reinvented the wheel as better, stronger, faster.

As usual from Pixar, the first thing you notice are the eye-wateringly beautiful visuals. Nature is rendered with detail and precision the likes of which have never been seen in a fully-animated CG feature. From the dense forests to the rugged mountaintops, the scenery is breathtaking and shows how quickly the technology has moved on the 14 short years since A Bug's Life first tried it. The artists (for that's what they are, in the truest sense of the word) have played with a gorgeous colour palette to bring the world to life, not least seen in Merida's shock of red hair and piercing blue eyes.

In fact, the only thing that hampers the otherwise beautiful film is the darkness problem intrinsic in all 3D films. There is a lot of darkness in Brave, whether it be caves, crypts or castles and the necessary low-lighting of the 3D renders all of these aesthetic choices void. In the day-glo Up and Toy Story 3, this wasn't such a problem but here it's difficult to see why they released it in this version, especially given the studio's dedication to the auteur principle. The technique itself isn't jarring, simply used for depth, but the dimness most certainly is.

The second thing you notice is the superlative voice acting. Pixar always get the best people for the job and here it's the cream of the crop of Scottish and English talent. Connolly is just himself, as a literally larger-than-life loving father and jovial warrior. Macdonald thankfully doesn't make Merida grating and plays well against Thompson. As per usual, there's a bunch of fantastic cameos, not least Scots/US talk show host Craig Ferguson as a clan leader, Julie Walters as a witch and studio stalwart John Ratzenberger (previously Hamm in Toy Story and the Yeti in Monsters, Inc) as Gordon the guard.

The script has the usual sparkle, with plenty to entertain adults and kids alike. The triplets are the human successors to Scrat from Fox's Ice Age, whirling dervishes always in pursuit of buns and the main slapstick element of the movie. It lacks a lot of the wit and whimsy in, say Monsters, Inc or Ratatouille, but makes up for it with wonder and heart in spades. There's a slight lull in the action following the heavily-trailed archery scene, as the film clumsily repositions itself to subvert expectations. But once the grinding of the gears ceases, it continues smoothly and at a great pace.

As usual, a short film precedes the main feature. Here, it's La Luna from Enrico Casarosa, a storyboard artist who worked on Up, Ratatouille and Ice Age. It's probably the best match yet in terms of both the visuals and the thematic elements. With Brave, you've got a girl battling against taking up the family mantle. Here, you have another coming-of-age tale from the other side - a young boy eagerly doing things his own way in a very unusual family business. It's just as gorgeous as the main feature but just as hampered by the dreaded 3D darkness problems.

Brave is a bold Pixar debut from Mark Andrews, Brenda Chapman (The Prince of Egypt) and Steve Purcell (of Sam and Max fame) and one that has been unfairly maligned in some quarters. Certainly, on the surface of it, this seems like your run-of-the-mill young girl wish-fulfilment Disney flick. But peel away the many layers and there's something much more brilliant, much more special and much more unique than it is being given credit for.

Brave was released in the UK on 13th August 2012.

Nearest tube station: Holloway Road (Piccadilly)



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