Digital animation studio Pixar (or Disney-Pixar as they seem to be billed as these days) have been putting out high quality family movies for not far off twenty years now, though it’s been a while since I caught one. I seem to remember Toy Story being a bit of a classic, as much for its wit, compassion and well rounded narrative as its cutting edge CGI craft, setting the bar high for future projects, including those released by competing studios, such as Shrek, Madagascar and the delightfully surreal Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs. I’ve been vaguely meaning to go see what the state of the art is with this kind of thing so when I found myself with a slightly unexpected free afternoon on my hands the other day I shambled over to my handy local multiplex to take in Pixar’s new effort Brave*.
I guess the title might lead you to believe this is something to do with native Americans, but in this case we’re talking Brave as in Braveheart, as in plucky medieval Scottish clans residing in castles located in or near highly scenic glens and lochs and forests. The central character is the flame-haired teenage daughter of one of the clan’s lord and lady, and she’s plucky and feisty and good with a bow and arrow, and also naturally fairly aggrieved when her prim and proper mother and gregarious but kindhearted father tell her that they need to marry her off to the heir of one of the other clans in the interest of preserving the peace. You can probably tell where this is going…
…although, actually, you probably can’t, and therein lies my problem with Brave, which is otherwise a perfectly acceptable bit of product, with as much imagination and care put into its beautifully rendered characters, locations and action setpieces as you’d expect. There’s absolutely nothing amiss visually here – the various clan members are lovingly designed and characterised in a manner that reminds me of the Asterix comic strips with a dash of Aardman – and the dialogue’s perfectly serviceable, even if the funny bits run along fairly well-worn grooves, but there seems to be something wrong at a much more basic storytelling level, as if the scriptwriters couldn’t decide which of the three or so main plotlines they were playing with was the most important, so they ended up stitching them awkwardly together Frankenstein-style. There’s nothing wrong in principle in introducing narrative left-turns and confounding an audience’s expectations, and it has in the past been one of Pixar’s greatest virtues that they make a point of sometimes straying from the formula (I’m thinking particularly of the completely unpredictable Up, the unguessable shape of which is one of its main delights), but it really helps if someone takes the trouble to get everything to tie up satisfactorily by the end. The makers of Brave spend a lot of time in the first half of the film setting up a big old family conflict that has major repercussions in the wider community, but then seem to lose interest and get distracted by a new story about the misuse of a kooky witch’s spell, before dragging in elements of an ancient legend that provide a reasonably exciting finale but don’t cast a lot of light on the original dilemma faced by the central character, which by this point has been undramatically diffused via a bit of friendly chat about the value of tradition and unity. It all feels a bit so-what, really.
Still, there are plenty of individual scenes that make Brave worth a look (I particularly liked the Julie Walters-voiced witch, with her wicked customer service send-ups), even if the whole doesn’t add up to much. Kids will probably love it, but Pixar used to have the gift of making entertainments that kept parents satisfied too. Let’s hope it’s just a blip.
* or Brave 3D, as it’s being advertised as. I duly shelled out for the glasses for this showing, but this feels like a gimmick that’s really run its course now – as in the case of Prometheus or the last Harry Potter film I didn’t even notice the third dimension here. Save your money and go for the flat version.