Thursday, July 5, 2012

Movie Review: "Brave"

When compared to the lofty creative heights achieved by The Incredibles, Up and Toy Story, Brave seems kinda m'eh in comparison.  Despite its beautiful art design, excellent voice acting and positive themes, the movie suffers from pedestrian story beats, all-too-familiar tropes and vast tracts of slap-stick comedy.


Merida (Kelly Macdonald) is a rough-n'-tumble tomboy with a yen for adventure.  Her proud father, King Fergus (Billy Connolly), happily indulges her but her mum, Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson) is more pragmatic.  She knows that tradition dictates that her daughter will someday marry the heir of an allied clan.  Since martial skills like horseback riding and archery are moot, Elinor tries her best to re-fashion Merida into a real princess.

But when Merida learns that she's betrothed to one of three unpalatable suitors, she declares archery to be the determining contest and then wins the competition herself.  This results in a major rift between mother and daughter and the young princess runs away from home.  Not long after, Merida encounters a mysterious witch in the woods and urges the old crone to give her a spell to change her mother's mind.

Anyone familiar with The Monkey's Paw will know exactly where this is headed.  The spell goes horribly (and comically) awry and Merida spends the rest of the film trying to restore the "pride-torn bond" with her mum.  There's a bit of traditional adventure shoe-horned into the film in the form of some ancient ruins and a mysterious dude name Mor'du, but otherwise the story is pretty castle-bound.

Honestly, I had no clue what the film was going to be about.  At the very least, the trailer certainly can't be accused of "giving too much away".  On the downside, anyone expecting a grand and epic tale may be sorely disappointed in what amounts to a mash-up of Freaky Friday meets Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs told with a Scottish brogue.    

Unintentional transmogrification isn't the only tired plot chestnut being peddled here.  By my calculation, we've seen the whole "willful-young-girl-rebels-against-arranged-marriage" thang approximately one hojillion times.  Add in what feels like a laundry list of historical Scottish tropes and personality clichés (They're loud!  They're quick-tempered!  They fight a lot!) and the entire thing feels creatively fatigued.

Which is a real shame since the movie looks so durned pretty.  The character models alone are fantastic.  Merida is a wondrous creation; her Captain-Caveman-by-way-of-Carrot-Top hair is positively hypnotic to watch.  I applaud the animators for making her cute without without going all "Anime Disney Princess" on her.  On the other hand, I find it hilarious that even the creatively unhindered realm of animation isn't immune to the whole "ugly dude/hot wife" phenomenon.  

The castle, the surrounding village and the environs traversed by the characters are all colorful and vibrant.  I couldn't help but marvel as Merida climbed to the top of a gorgeous waterfall, dashed through the forest astride her trusty steed and followed the spectral Wisps to the Stone Circle.  Having been to Scotland before, I was also amused to see that Brave seems to take place just prior to the time before the Celts cut all of the trees down.

As I said before, the voice acting is stellar and I'm really pleased that most of the cast is actually Scottish.  Kelly Macdonald's voice is a winsome match for Merida.  Emma Thompson's Queen Elinor maintains a regal and spot-on Scottish accent.  Billy Connolly really steals the show as King Fergus, serving up sly asides, awkward proclamations and pure bombast in equal measure.               

Now, some might think me beastly for criticizing a film that's essentially targeted towards little people who don't know a cliché from the Champs-Élysées.  But it's still an adult that has to pay those admission prices and I think they deserve to see something fresh, new and thought-provoking as well.

That's not to say that Brave is addle-brained.  In fact, it's core message of female empowerment and open communication is an inherently positive one.  But we've seen all of these things before and, frankly, the familiar in Brave far outweighs the innovative.

For the record, I really do appreciate that a girl is finally at the center of a Pixar movie.  I just wish the producers had given her a more original and interesting MacGuffin to rail against.  

Tilt: down.

P.S. To any chucklehead out there who thinks Merida might be a lesbian: just watch this clip and ask yourself: 'If I were her, would I let any of these organ donors within a caber's length of my vagoo?'

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