Thursday, 16 August 2012
Toil and trouble: "Brave"
For a Pixar film, Brave feels uncommonly Disneyish. Maybe it's the speed processor chips are currently running at, maybe it's the pressure of getting one of these mass-market animations out in time for the next round of school holidays, but the company that gave us the dizzyingly inventive likes of Toy Story, The Incredibles and WALL-E would appear to be fast running out of ideas of their own. Their latest is an original of sorts - which elevates it above Cars 2, for one - yet Brave extends the recent run of animations centred on princesses differentiated only by the colour of their hair. After the Afro-black locks of Tiana in 2009's The Princess and the Frog and the blonde curls of Rapunzel in the following year's Tangled, Brave introduces us to Merida, a heroine distinguished principally by her phosphorescently fiery red mane. (And even in this, you could argue, she wears it no less well than Amy Adams' Giselle in 2007's live-action Enchanted.)
Much else about the film feels familiar, if not outright tired, deprived of the animators' usual energy and sparkle. Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald) resides in the Scottish Highlands, which prompts a rather broad-brush application of local culture: fife-and-drum music, kilt gags, Billy Connolly. In rejecting her parents' pleas to settle down and act more like a princess, she's also independent of spirit, which lends the film the vaguest hint of a political slant - Pixar were understandably keen to showcase Brave at this year's Edinburgh Film Festival - even as its story appears content to traipse around a universe not dissimilar to that of other animated successes, most obviously Shrek (the fairytale motifs, here conformed to rather than subverted) and How to Train Your Dragon (the supporting cast of beardy, burly, carousing Celts).
By all accounts, this was a fractious production, with original director Brenda Chapman (The Prince of Egypt) replaced by Mark Andrews (who made the fun One Man Band short, which screened before Cars). You can see it all too clearly in the film itself, which never really gets going after a series of false starts. We shouldn't really include the traditional pre-feature short in this, though even the cutely inconsequential La Luna seems guilty of secondhand artistry, muffling its more memorable textures (stars that glow like charcoals and rattle like roof tiles) with design cribbed from old Rainbow Brite cartoons and Sony's zappy Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. The failure of nerve is, however, evident in an abruptly curtailed prologue, which shies away from showing how Merida's father (voiced by Connolly) lost his leg in battle with a bear, and thus struggles to make complete sense of the narrative line Chapman (or Andrews) eventually tack.
Pixar's PR division has been at pains to point out such returns to the drawing board aren't an entirely unknown occurrence: WALL-E, among others, was a project comprehensively rebooted when the company's brains trust found themselves enduring non-screen related headaches. But the response to this particular crisis is. Rather than throw up their hands and declaring "sod it" - as appeared to be the case on Disney's troubled yet very underrated 2000 outing The Emperor's New Groove, whose gag-happy, devil-may-care vibe momentarily brought the Mouse House in line with the great Warner Bros. cartoonists, or their contemporary equivalents on The Simpsons - a more defensive, committee-room mentality looks to have taken hold.
The question posed was presumably "how can we save this thing?". Judging by the finished product, the answer appears to have been: by falling back on proven commercial formulas, that which has worked before. So it is we get witch's cottages redolent of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs; Merida's mother (Emma Thompson) being transformed into a bear, cueing plenty of the animal slapstick that has supported Madagascar and its ilk; and bonding adventures in the wilds that could be The Jungle Book as updated by Intel. The final betrayal of its heroine's independence, in favour of a very Disney reassertion of family values, is especially galling coming from the company whose Finding Nemo and The Incredibles served as such radical, progressive parenting texts.
In the end, Brave hasn't a single distinct ingredient to call its own: it's a cauldron, into which carefully measured essences of Disney and DreamWorks have been added to the quart of Irn-Bru already bubbling away there. Pixar's artistry isn't really in doubt: with its gleaming lochs, lush forests and misty mountains, the film may be the finest animated advert the Scottish Tourist Board could have wished for. But some of the studio's creative boldness - its desire to lead the market rather than merely reacting to it - would seem to have vanished between the ones and zeroes cobbled together here. Since Brave's debut in the United States, Pixar have announced one of their next ventures will be Toy Story 4. What, we might ask, is brave about that?
Brave is in cinemas nationwide.