In a week where we're having the same conversation about what women and girls can or can't do in fandom (let's call it "The War On Women Who Like To Dress Like Supergirl"), I want to say that the release of Disney/Pixar's "Brave" is particularly relevant. Co-directors/co-writers Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman's girl-empowering tale has been seized upon as Pixar's attempt to disrupt the Disney princess formula, offering the beloved animation studio's own heroic-minded take on that increasingly dusty trope.
And if Pixar was looking to break ranks from the tried and true princess is saved by/marries prince narrative arc, then they're largely successful with "Brave." But it's a shame that Pixar's first film with a female lead packs less of the punch, or let's say "heart" or they're previous work. Built on a simpler, more time-tested formula, "Brave" doesn't surprise the way "The Incredibles" did before it or nearly bring you to emotional collapse the way the second and third "Toy Story" movies were able to. It's a fine movie, just not Pixar-good.
****Spoilers after the jump****
The story--one which Pixar was very deliberate in keeping secret--takes place in medieval Scotland, where rough and tumble princess Merida (Kelly Macdonald) clashes with her stern mother Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson) on the eve of the big festival to choose which of the local princes will win the princess' hand in marriage. Merida isn't ready for marriage and commitment, and wants to choose her own way in life, while Elinor is simply trying to keep the kingdom out of the the grip of war and one thing leads to another and a witch has turned Elinor into a bear.
So from there, it's all about Merida learning a lesson so that she can help turn her mother back into a human while the three Scottish kings bicker back at the castle and the threat of war flits around the edges of the plot. Also, there's an evil bear haunting the forest surrounding the castle who took the King's (Billy Connolly) leg, and the subject of ruined tapestry which might or might not hold the secret to mending the union between mother and daughter.
The biggest issue I have with "Brave" is that among Pixar's films, it's the one that most transparently has a capital M "message." Every one of their previous movies has a message: "when everyone is special, then no one is," "mind your planet," "there's a time for childish things," "you can't live in the past and alone," "it's better to make and create than to steal." But what makes Pixar's films so beautiful is that these messages are usually worked into wonderful character pieces with rich characters. Here' Chapman and Andrews simplify things to an extreme, actually making the dramatic climax of the plot hinging on the heroine acting out the lesson and calling it out in the script. That's classic storytelling, very much of the "the real treasure was inside you all along" variety and that feels really retrograde for a studio that has excelled for so long at blending sophisticated storytelling with instructive stories.
One area the film excels: it should rank as one of Pixar's technical accomplishments, with another stylized-realistic world a la "Ratatouille." Here, the primary shape of reference is the rectangle, with all of the character models seemingly whittled down from a lovely, rectangular piece of wood, with photorealistic embellishments like carefully bobbing hair, whiskers, and clothing. The bulk of the work seems to have gone into Merida's tousled, wild mane of red hair.
The voice talent should be singled out as well, particularly Connolly, as a king who would rather be out on the hunt but instead finds himself caught in the middle of a domestic drama between his daughter and wife. MacDonald, likewise gives Merida life, and I wish the writers had given Thompson more to act on beyond the constraints of her role (actually, that's not fair since she's a bear for a good half of the movie).
Technically and talent-wise, "Brave" is a fine film and at any other studio would be an instant Oscar contender. At Pixar, it comes off as a first-pass on a much better, deeper film that has yet to manifest.
Special Features and Presentation
Disney sent along the 5-disc 3D edition which includes the 3D Blu-ray, 2D Blu-ray with the feature film, a Blu-ray Bonus disc, and a DVD. Movie collecting obsessive aside: I typically throw away the cardboard slipcovers to DVDs and Blu-rays, but you will totally trick me into keeping your slipcover if it's got a lenticular image.
Starting with the 3D Blu-ray, the quality of the 3D effects are fine, if not essential. "Brave" never feels like a movie bold or big enough in scope or action that it required the extra dimension. But in the home release, it's perfectly fine, with serviceable depth and a couple of pleasing effects in and around Merida's castle home. The 3D disc also includes the short "La Luna" (06:57) by Enrico Casarosa which handily matches the film's theme of children finding their own way.
The 2D Blu-ray includes the feature, "La Luna," and the short "The Legend of Mor'du" (06:51), an expanded telling of the monster bear's origin as told by the witch (Julie Walters), done in a painted style. The disc also includes audio commentary by the filmmakers and eight behind-the-scenes featurettes along with extended scenes.
The second 2D Blu-ray includes a rough alternate opening with an introduction by Mark Andrews (2:40). Other features include "Fallen Warriors," also including an intro by Andrews, "Dirty Hairy People" (03:30) which looks at medieval Scotland, "It's English... Sort Of" on the film's dialects, "Angus" which focuses on the design of Merida's horse, while "The Tapestry" features the film's animators talking about that plot device and how it originally was included in another opening for the film; the disc also includes a collection of teasers and trailers and an art gallery.
Finally, the DVD includes the film, feature commentary, and the the two shorts in standard def.
Disney/Pixar's "Brave" is available now on DVD, Blu-ray, and 3D Blu-ray.