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Catching Up on 2012: Josh Reviews Brave

Each year, in preparation for my end-of-the-year “Best Of” lists, I watch a lot of movies.  It’s become a bit of a tradition here on the site that, after posting my year-end lists, I write a series of “catching up on insert-the-previous-year-here” posts, reviewing some of the movies that I crammed in at the end of the year, that I hasn’t yet had time to write about individually.  This year was no different, except that I’m a bit delayed in writing about many of those 2012 films I saw at the very end of the year, including Safety Not Guaranteed and Jeff, Who Lives at Home (both of which made it onto my Best Movies of 2012 list), Chronicle, Take this Waltz, Killer Joe, Joe Dies at the End, Paul Williams Not Dead, 21 Jump Street, The Campaign, and more.  So look for reviews of those films in the coming weeks!  Today, I want to talk about Brave.

After an incredible run of absolutely spectacular, perfection-level films, from Finding Nemo to The Incredibles to Ratatouille to WALL-E to Up to Toy Story 3, I was stunned to realize the other day that I had missed the last two Pixar films: Cars 2 and Brave.  Cars was by far my least favorite Pixar film, so I wasn’t that interested in the sequel.  I’d like to watch it at some point, but I haven’t felt any rush.  Brave definitely interested me, but it got very mixed reviews and I was so busy over the summer that by the time I had a chance to try to see it, it was already gone from theatres.  But I was looking to watch it, as soon as the film was released on DVD.

I’m glad I did.  Brave isn’t at the level of those Pixar films I listed above, but it’s still a very clever, very entertaining film.

Why don’t I think it’s as great as those other amazing Pixar films?  Mainly because while those films were each so wonderfully unique, bringing to life a world and a set of characters so totally unlike anything we’d ever seen before, Brave’s set-up feels very familiar.  This is the story of a headstrong princess who doesn’t want to get married.  That’s story-ground that has been pretty well-mined by many previous Disney animated films.  It’s a little surprising to see a Pixar film start from such a familiar place.

But that being said, I love the world that is brought to life in Brave.  Though the basic story set-up is familiar, by setting the story in Scotland we get to explore the flavor of a world that has NOT been explored before in animation.  I found the Scottish setting and characters thoroughly delightful.  At the beginning, the world and the characters are mined for a lot of laughter.  Certainly the film’s character design is particularly loopy, and I love that the animators and designers took a very stylized approach to their character design (rather than falling into the trap of just trying to depict realistically proportioned humans).  I love the attention to detail that the animators took in capturing the look of Scotland.  (There’s a great bit in the special features all about their efforts to write programming that would effectively replicate Scotland’s distinct moss.)  I also love how the stories and legends of Scotland were woven into the story.

As is to be expected in a Pixar film, the voice-cast is absolutely stupendous.  I was particularly impressed by how the filmmakers avoided any stunt-casting, choosing instead to cast Scottish actors, all of whom just happen to be magnificent actors and perfect for their parts.  Kelly Macdonald (Gosford Park, No Country for Old Men, Boardwalk Empire) is fantastic as the film’s heroine, the young Merida.  I adore her work in the film, giving Merida the fierce independence of a stubborn teenager but also a tremendous likability.  Billy Connolly (pretty much the only good thing about The X-Files: I Want to Believe) is absolutely terrific as her father, Fergus.  I adore Fergus’ character design — his huge body, his peg-leg — and Mr. Connolly is a riot in the role, showing us Fergus’ tremendous spirit and joie de vivre without making him a total buffoon.  He is still a good husband, and a good father, and a pretty good ruler.  Though he would be lost without his wife & Merida’s mother, Elinor, played by the peerless Emma Thompson.  I didn’t even realize Elinor was voiced by Ms. Thompson until I got to the end of the film — that is how convincingly and completely Ms. Thompson embodies the character.  This is a tricky role, as the film’s story centers upon a schism between Merida and her mother, and of course since Merida is the film’s main character, we are going to be on her side.  But through Ms. Thomposon’s delicate work, Elinor proves to be just as complex and interesting a character as Merida.  Robbie Coltrane (Goldeneye and The World is Not Enough, and Hagrid in the Harry Potter film series), Kevin McKidd, and Craig Ferguson play the three lords with whom Fergus must get along, and all three are terrific, very funny and idiosyncratic (an effect assisted by each of their characters’ very distinct designs — and no, I will not get tired of praising the character design in this film).

I also have to make note of the wicked witch character (voiced with gleeful abandon by Julie Walters).  At first, the inclusion of a wicked witch character felt like one more un-original, overly-familiar element of Brave’s story.  But I love the way the witch was realized.  The loony, hilarious character was totally the opposite of what I expected.  She’s a riot, more of a used-car salesman than your typical fairy-tale wicked witch, and her scenes are some of my very favorite parts of the film.  (I particularly love her magical “answering-machine” message.)

Brave is a film affected by behind-the-scenes controversy.  The film was originally developed by Brenda Chapman.  She based the story on her relationship with her own daughter, and worked on the film for years.  Much ado was made of her being the very first female director of a Pixar film.  And yet, in 2010, she was bumped off the film and replaced as the director by Andrew Chapman.  I am sure there are two sides to the story, but I can only imagine how wrenching it must have been for Ms. Chapman, to have worked on this project for so long only to have it taken from her.  (She describes the experience as “devastating.”)  There must have been mixed emotions for her when Brave won the Oscar last week for 2012 Best Animated Film.  (Andrew Stanton took the mike first, and I was afraid he wasn’t going to give Ms. Chapman a chance to speak, but luckily she did have her moment in the sun.  Back-stage, she described the win as a “vindication.”)  I found it a little hard to blot out all of this behind-the-scenes turmoil when watching Brave, and though I readily admit again that of course I have no idea the full story of what went on behind-the-scenes, I felt very sympathetic and a little sad for Ms. Chapman.  But who knows what aspects of the film were changed or improved after her departure.  I can only judge the finished product, and I found it to be very enjoyable.

Brave isn’t going to set the world on fire, but it is far from the catastrophe I was expecting.  It may be a little less unique, a little more formulaic than the best of Pixar’s previous films, but it still is a terrifically entertaining yarn, gorgeously animated, funny and exciting and emotional.  Kids will love it, and I bet you will too.

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