Published on July 11th, 2012 | by Jordan Petersen0
I must begin by making it clear that I am about as devout a fan of Pixar as you’ll find. They have, since Toy Story, set a gold standard for conventional storytelling. The only one of their mind-bogglingly successful retinue of films that didn’t quite measure up to the insanely high caliber for which they have become renowned was Cars — and it stood to reason that its sequel would also fail to impress anyone with its story. To date, Cars 2 is the only Pixar film I haven’t seen. They phoned it in, and no one blames them.
Brave, however, had no excuse for mediocrity. Assuming the brilliant story crafters employed the same process and standard to it that they did to all their other films (Cars-es excluded), it couldn’t miss. Especially considering its premise which, after Pixar’s typical fashion, is fresh, imaginative and promises high emotional dividends.
The kernel of the story is all about a mother-daughter relationship, and the basic conceit — a daughter accidentally turns her mom into a bear — is unexpected and quite touching. Again, lots of potential here. But almost all of it was left on the table. The actual scene-by-scene progression of narrative moments was predictable and arbitrary. A smart friend who saw it with me called it “paint by numbers,” which pretty well sums it up.
The main character herself contributed significantly to this weakness. Here was an opportunity to really explore young feminine independence, and build a complex and vital character. Instead, the writers present a prototypical, overly-modernized Disney version of princess empowerment. She’s almost totally uninteresting. She spoke not one surprising word. It was like her dialogue had been written by every cartoonish stab at the tried and trite “anti-princess.”
This was particularly disappointing within such a lushly gorgeous environment. Pixar effectively brings the audience back in time to visit a rich and unique cultural setting — and then populates it with a host of one-dimensional characters parading around a little entitled American girl with a Scottish accent. It is devilishly hard to stay interested in what’s happening, a condition all the more painful during the brief moments through which the potential greatness of this story timidly peaks.
None of this is to say that the film did not have its strengths. It was very funny, and freshly so. This is another of Pixar’s unique and admirable standards. This one, thankfully, remains unsullied. It was also stunningly rendered in every visual detail. This is another area in which the venerated animation studio seems to be at the top of its game. The breathtaking visuals were served, too, by a charming and consistently lovely soundtrack.
Halfway through, however, I realized that I’d rather be watching How to Train Your Dragon again. Its characters were far more interesting, the humor was better, and it was a whole lot more fun. And it was by Dreamworks two years ago. “Strange things are happening to me — ain’t no doubt about it.”
Ultimately, Brave marks a disturbing interrupt in what was always an impossibly consistent legacy. What happened to the gold standard of storytelling? What went wrong? How did this film, narratively weak as it was, make it through the exacting and unforgiving process of development for which Pixar has become so justly admired? It shouldn’t have, and that worries me. Because if this film, which has nothing to do with anthropomorphic toy cars, can make it all the way to release without a solid story, who’s to say Pixar’s next efforts are guaranteed? The Pixar standard has been officially tarnished. ♦ ♦ ♦
Jordan Petersen is SOUND’s resident sensei of all things movie-related. Recently graduated from Brigham Young University, he is now working towards a Master’s degree in film at Boston University. Check out Jordan’s filmmaking blog at twentyoneninety.blogspot.com.