"You know it when you see a Pixar name on a film it's going to entertain
you really deeply and show you something you've never seen before. It just
so happens our films are great for kids, too. I would always say that our
audience... if you're breathing, you're good for a Pixar film."
The unusually immodest Executive Producer, John Lasseter
In movie land, love is fickle, affection ephemeral and respect anorexic. Constancy is to Hollywood as grace is to Mitt Romney's presidential campaign. No one individual or company is consistently successful in the film business but if pressed to name one... As the cliché goes, "Success has many fathers, failure is an orphan." Given this maxim, it's interesting that Pixar is the only production company that credits or lists all the babies of cast and crew that were born during the film's production: Many fathers, indeed, and such success. So in their own idiom... Once upon a time there was a company that defied every single odd and forged ahead with idiosyncratic hit after idiosyncratic hit gaining commercial and critical approval each time at bat. It's been seventeen years (wow) since the seminal Toy Story, and if the mighty haven't actually fallen, they've not been consistently as mighty as they once were. From a narrow personal perspective, something I happily admit is mine alone to bear; I had a few problems with the conception of Cars and subsequently didn't even see the sequel. I took in a few articles here and there about discord over Ratatouille (those pesky 'creative differences' again) and the story of Cars 2 being crassly and merchandise-mindedly scripted to sell itself more to overseas markets from which the larger percentage of profit now emanates. Cars became a US counterpart to the UK's Thomas The Tank Engine. You want to sell more toys? Create another character! These stories made me sad because Pixar seemed to have struck that perfect balance far from the bottom-feeding dollar-grubbers that had been squatting in the Mouse House.
Once Pixar and Disney re-merged like divorcees too important (read 'profitable') to each other to ever be truly separated, I felt the magic had sprung a leak. With John Lasseter in charge, surely each new Disney offering should be up to Pixar's demanding narrative benchmarks. Yeah, but it doesn't work and has never worked like that. 'The Purity of Original Conception' sounds like a biblical phrase but it has always meant to me the startling debut of a great artist or craftsperson followed by an almost Mephistophelian fall from grace (the second album syndrome) brought about by the pressures and demands of that first triumph. Success changes things and Pixar was the right company to stave off its effects but not forever. Super 70s band Pink Floyd enjoyed extraordinary success and it took a whole album to push that gushing tsunami of praise past them so they could move on creatively. Have a cigar... Pixar has elevated expectation to dizzying heights and this means the maw waiting to claim them has much sharper teeth.
So on to a magical story about a mother-daughter relationship among the kings and queens of medieval Scotland. Yes, our heroine is a princess (Pixar's first female protagonist) and despite oft-repeated canards, Disney princesses are not of an easily reducible kind. Remember what Disney used to stand for and how that mutated? It's easy to press the mold of today into the clay of yesterday but don't forget just how good yesterday actually was. Princess Merida is resourceful and strong (of course) and her wonderfully rendered hair fills in a great deal about her character, wild and vivid, an explosion of colour set apart from the earthy hues of her own majestic landscape. And guess what? She wants a say in the hitherto traditional decision to marry her off politically. She also wants to choose her own husband – sacrilege! This is an aspect of the film that prompted The Sunday Times' critic, Cosmo Landesman, to suggest this movie could build geo-political bridges between the secular west and the Islamic Middle East. I understand his enthusiasm for the idea if it weren't so heartbreakingly tragic that what seems utterly obvious and elemental to one culture seems like heinous and sinful recklessness to another: A woman having power over her own fate? What will they think of next? Giving them a license to drive?
Brave's world is one of real magic (Hogwarts is in Scotland; there must be something in the air), again a plot attribute that has upset a few critics. This kind of magic is much more Disney than Pixar but hey, let's allow them to tell the tale. Whether we care or shed a tear is the proof of the story's effectiveness and whether we like it or not as an audience, Disney and Pixar are married again. Co-director Brenda Chapman came up with the tale (The Bow and the Bear) and curiously there are three director credits just like Ratatouille. Chapman was ousted (I guess no one except the participants in the dispute will really know the nature of the creative differences) and the only clue for the reason is that Lasseter said he selected Mark Andrews to take over Brave because of the director's "sense of action and heart." What does that say about the sense of action and heart of Brenda Chapman, curiously the co-director of Dreamworks' The Prince Of Egypt and the story supervisor of some B picture called The Lion King? Her track record is impressive. I wonder what was at the heart of the dispute? I guess even John Lasseter has to deal with PR awkwardness in getting his films the way he wants them. You don't get to be Creative Director of two of the most successful Hollywood companies without a steel spine and a ruthless regard for your own narrative instincts. I can say what I like about Cars but merchandising alone based on that one film has raked in about ten billion dollars (ahem, billion!) – hence the sequel. I feel the tiniest bit vindicated because while Cars was born from Lasseter's love of all things automobile, the sequel was a grubby dollar deal, the first in Pixar's history. Back to Brave.
So Merida (beautifully voiced by Kelly MacDonald) is a corkscrew flame-haired beloved daughter whose enormous father (a perfectly cast Billy Connolly) sports a wooden leg after an encounter with the movies' big bad – Mor'du, a fearsome bear. Elinor, the Queen (an accented and just recognizable Emma Thompson) is what I now think would be called a 'helicopter' parent, a continually fussing and guiding, ever present teacher preparing her errant daughter for the demands and duties of a princess. In fact, if I hadn't been upstaged by the real McCoy a few weeks ago, I'd have called her a 'helicopter Queen'... Merida's rage at the thought of being married off sets her on a path to defy her parents and after a huge row, she rides off into the forest where will o' the wisps beckon leading her to a witch played by who else but Julie Walters, the matronly witch Mrs. Weasley in the Harry Potter universe. After some relatively clumsy wordage (from memory, Merida wishes that her 'mother changes' which sat uncomfortably with me) the spell is cast. I'll say no more because I was slightly irked that I found out what the spell did before I saw the movie. It's not a spoiler but it's more fun to be surprised. The resulting escapades (a lovely, understated role reversal) and subsequent denouement are very heartfelt and the climax is a real tearjerker.
But there are many unresolved issues with the movie that I could lazily lay at the door of 'creative differences'. For a start, who's brave? Merida's feisty, yes (I am beginning to really detest that word, it feels almost sexist) and probably brave in a pinch. She has unerring skill as an archer but the movie doesn't give her a chance to shine at this. Yes, there's the over-quoted 'split the arrow' shot that's featured in every movie with such weaponry but as there's no threat in that instance, her skill is then largely discarded as are her potential suitors. Who she is and what she can do doesn't drive the story. In fact they are almost incidental. The crux of the tale is a broken link between daughter and mother and how everything can go to the dogs after one badly judged decision. And with magic, who knows where you are?
To serve as a MacGuffin for the characters to react to, the witch conveniently gives the time period to reverse the spell as two days – an almost arbitrary period that feels cheap. Hell, one of Merida's wooers is actually called MacGuffin; is that a wink or one of Brave's almost non-existent nods to post-modernism? As there are fewer narrative roads to go down, Brave is a little easier to second guess. One of Pixar's strengths for me has always been their movies' ability to be delightful surprises just when you think you've worked out what's going to happen. Brave doesn't have the narrative-guessing luxury afforded to Wall-E or Up but it's still a rousing adventure with gorgeous cinematography. I visited the Highlands a few years ago and I can see how the real would have inspired the virtual. It really is breathtaking up there. Patrick Doyle's score is suitably ethnic, inspiring and thrilling in places and the character animation is all you could hope it to be. In short, Brave has some very odd story inconsistencies and unresolved aspects to its tale but on the whole it's a solid Pixar entry treating the audience with some respect (especially mothers and daughters) and delivering a fine, magical action romp with an emotional heft that belies its size. It's no Nemo but mercifully neither is it anywhere near Cars...
Postscript; and of course there's the short before the main feature. Go in with zero expectations and revel in the artistry contained within La Luna. Perhaps not as clever or involving as their many other shorts, La Luna is still capable of weaving a spell all of its own. Sweet.