Wednesday, August 22, 2012


Has the Pixar bubble burst?

Two years ago, I came out of ‘Toy Story 3’ with mixed feelings – so mixed that I elected not to post a review on these pages. I found much of it inventive, delightful and entertaining; some of it utterly lachrymose in a Spielbergian emotional pornography kind of way; and an extended sequence in the third act just plain mean-spirited. A year ago, I came out of ‘Cars 2’ thinking that whichever bright spark had decided that Mater was protagonist material needed his arse kicking all the way to Radiator Springs and back again. 

Now we have ‘Brave’. And before we can discuss a single frame of film, there’s an elephant in the room as big as the bear that appears in the castle in a crucial scene. (And can I just say … bears in Scotland? Maybe prior to 900 AD, however the historical period the film takes as its point of reference seems to be concurrent with the Dunkeld monarchy of 1058 to 1290.) ‘Brave’ was originally announced as Pixar’s first pro-feminist production, boasting not only a heroine (all Pixar’s previous protagonists, right down to a gender-specific robot, having been male) but a female director, Brenda Chapman. Back then the project was called ‘The Bear and the Bow’, a more appropriate title than ‘Brave’ since the overriding theme is family, loyalty and age difference rather than any rites-of-passage requirement necessitating proof of valour.

Then Chapman was given the push – Pixar’s PR trotted out the hoary old “creative differences” line – and replaced by Mark Andrews (although Chapman retains a secondary “directed by” credit) and the project was retitled ‘Brave’, presumably for no other reason than to evoke ‘Braveheart’, another bit of Hollywood McScotland-ism. Chapman’s original concept of the project was an examination of the mother-daughter dynamic inspired by her relationship with her own daughter. Andrews and his co-writers (or should that be re-writers?) turn in something considerably more simplistic and infinitely less satisfying emotionally.

Essentially, ‘Brave’ – and I’m still fucked if I know who or what the title refers to – gives us a theme-park version of the Highlands in which Princess Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald), daughter of unreconstructed warrior king Fergus (Billy Connolly) and diplomat queen Elinor (Emma Thompson, trying for a Scottish accent in her early scenes then giving up entirely), rails against being offered as bride to whichever son of clan chiefs proves himself at the highland games. She visits a witch (Julie Walters, doing an inspired “old crone” routine) and asks for a spell which will change her mother. Meaning change her mother’s mind re: the marriage arrangements. Instead, Elinor is changed into … well, check out the original title. 

Thus far: a princess, a wicked (ish) witch, a curse, enchanted woods and fairies (in the shape of will-o’-the-wisps). Disney acquired Pixar in 2006; six years down the line, the assimilation begins.

To be fair, ‘Brave’ isn’t necessarily bad. There are some truly inspired scenes: everything involving the witch’s hut is terrific, most notably a genius gag that turns a cauldron into an answering machine. There’s also a low-brow but funny-as-fuck moment where a band of arms-bearing clansmen, finding themselves on the roof of a castle and locked out, abseil to the ground by means of tied-together kilts and file sheepishly past the camera, arses prominent. This ties with a ‘Mission Impossible’ style retrievable of a cell-door key from a serving woman’s pneumatic bosom as the least PG moment in a PG-rated kid’s movie.

The animation is gorgeous, no questions asked. Historical inconsistencies notwithstanding, ‘Brave’ captures the grandeur of the highlands so sweepingly that, on exiting the cinema, I immediately wanted to get in my car and drive north. The choppy surfaces of lochs, the vibrant colour of the heather, the spray of waterfalls – all of captured in a standard of CGI that, at its best, verges of photo-realism. Judged solely on visual aesthetics, one could easily pronounce ‘Brave’ a masterpiece and leave it at that. Indeed, the beauty of its imagery is enough to justify a DVD purchase and multiple viewings.

And yet … and yet …

I’ve been spoiled. I’ve got used to floating out of the cinema after a Pixar film, not walking out. Finding myself in the pub afterwards trawling my vocabulary for superlatives, not making do with “yeah, it was okay”. Itching to get home and start writing a review, not reluctantly putting finger to keyboard and wishing I could be more enthusiastic. Or, to put it another way, there have been other Pixar films that have been more emotionally compelling, other Pixar films that have been funnier, other Pixar films that have provided better entertainment, other Pixar films that have delivered better narratives.

For two decades, Pixar have successively raised the bar in every artistic aspect. Perhaps now they are falling victims to their own success: they are producing films that are merely good, rather than groundbreaking masterpieces. And maybe this is because, despite their technological advances, Pixar remain regressive in one crucial respect. It’s still a boy’s club.

Sort it, fellas.


Tim said...

In the two months since I've seen it, I've grown increasingly certain that the issue is that the idea of a mother-daughter bonding movie was emotionally incomprehensible to the Pixar boys, and the shift that happened when Andrews took over directing from Chapman was largely a matter of welding on action/adventure and broad comedy into a much more serious and personal movie that still bleeds through every now and then. Still a movie I enjoy, but it's just so damn insubstantial as everything but a pretty scenery machine.

In other words: I agree with all the things you say.

Neil Fulwood said...

Thanks for commenting, Tim. The schism between the pratfall comedy (much of which I didn't find all that funny; there are only so many things a character newly transmogrified into a bear can bump into) and what survives of the emotional core of Chapman's intended movie never reconciles and 'Brave', as a result, just doesn't quite gel as a movie.