Pixar has been a part of the Disney Corporation since 2006. Before that they worked under the understanding that they could do whatever it wanted, Disney would show their movies to the world and they’d split the profits somehow. It was a beautiful alliance that brought us gems like Toy Story 2, Finding Nemo and The Incredibles. If you would ask John Lasseter, Pixar’s mastermind, if their independence has changed since Disney’s takeover he would probably tell you that it is still intact. But Pixar’s latest effort, Brave, tells a different story.
Brave is a Disney movie with every fiber of its being. We have a plucky princess, Merida, who wants nothing more than to break the mold. She is expected to take on a husband and lead a life of relative servitude, while she just wants to ride in the woods on the back of her trusty steed shooting arrows at targets. This of course upsets her mother and the tensions rise. Merida runs away and seeks advice from a mysterious witch who provides her with a spell that will perhaps change Merida’s mother’s mind a bit. Well, it changes quite a bit more than that and a race against time is a fact. Merida needs to find a way to get her mother back and in the meantime erase a black page in Scotland’s history.
Don’t get me wrong, Brave is a fun movie to watch. It is a stunning display of the level of proficiency the people at Pixar possess. The detail in the rendering of the Scottish Highlands is astonishing. You can almost feel the moss on the rocks. I did not see it in 3D, but it was digital projection and it was glorious. Two thumbs up right there. The rest, not so much. The character animation is decent, but incredibly cartoony. It felt like Brave could have used a little less slapstick to offset the strange magical occurrences later in the movie. That’s where Merida’s little brothers come in. They are triplets, but they serve no larger purpose than to be comic relief with a little involvement at a late stage in the movie. There are solely there to create more merchandise for the Disney Stores to sell. A lot in Brave feels like padding for a script that was actually just about an hour long.
Brave reminded me a lot of other Disney properties. There is a great tradition of Disney princesses trying to change their fate (a word used a lot in Brave to hammer the point home) to create a better life for themselves. Ariel, Jasmine, Mulan, Pocahontas, all of them strong female role models. There is nothing wrong with that, and if Brave had been a strict Disney production, like Tangled, I would have probably settled for that. but Lasseter’s Pixar has set the bar so ridiculously high for themselves that a production like Brave just falls short. Like Cars 2 before it, Brave is just subp-ix-ar (sorry, pun intended).
What is the cause of this gradual decline in Pixar’s quality? I think it is age. When Lasseter and his people took the idea of Toy Story and made it into the phenomenon it became, nobody knew when the sky would be the limit. Lasseter gathered a brilliant group of directors around him (Andrew Stanton, Brad Bird, Pete Docter, Lee Unkrich) and threw a challenge in their lap: “Create worlds we have never seen before, even though we have no idea whether we can make it happen”. We know what came of that and we are forever grateful for that. It made other studios step up their game, which made the world look at animation differently.
Now the men and women who made Pixar what it is are starting to fan out to other challenges and they seem to be taking a piece of the magic with them and that breaks my heart. For fifteen years we have been eagerly expecting every new release Pixar was preparing and now that seems to not be the case anymore, at least for me. As much as I liked Monsters Inc., I am not really looking forward to Monsters University. Even a fourth Toy Story doesn’t really appeal to me after the way they finished Toy Story 3. I am very worried that Disney’s influence is becoming a little too dominant within the hallowed halls of Pixar. Does that mean you shouldn’t go watch Brave? No, enjoy it for what it is and hope Pixar gets their act together in the future.