By Bob Clark
The recent attention paid in the press to the behind-the-scenes conflicts that manifested during the making of Pixar’s latest feature-length effort do a good job of illustrating the studio’s holistic approach to cultivating and executing storytelling through animation. Originally the pet project of industry veteran Brenda Chapman, whose tenure includes stints during the Disney Renaissance and the modern classic Dreamworks feature Prince of Egypt, and inspired by her own trials and tribulations as a mother with a growing daughter, it began life as The Bow and the Bear, a modernist blend of the typical Disney Princess-narrative and Celtic mythology that saw fit to pit a fiery red-haired tomboy lass against a domineering mother against the backdrop of Scottish bravado and magic alike. In its finished form, Brave shares much in common with the film that Chapman set out to make from the outset, and stands as an impressive technical feat from the studio that as of yet remains unrivaled when it comes to the visual wizardry of computer animation. And yet, there’s something hollow and unsatisfying about the overall results that speaks much about the weaknesses inherent in Pixar’s collaborative approach to filmmaking in a way that even some of the more middling efforts they’ve offered in past years never approached.
Granted, I’ve never been a dyed-in-the-wool fan of Pixar’s, over the years. Aside from the historical footnote of being responsible for the first CGI feature film, Toy Story and its subsequent sequels barely register as a blip on my radar as far as outstanding animation goes, while things like A Bug’s Life and the Cars franchise escape so much detection they might as well be flying on stealth. Some efforts, like Finding Nemo, Monsters Inc. and Up do a good job of outstepping their sibling features and showcase both the technical and creative talents cultivated by the studio, if not entirely worthy of being counted as stand-out masterpieces (Up especially has the nagging quality of telling a story that would have been a classic as a thirty minute short, but overstays its welcome somewhat as a feature). Others, like The Incredibles, Ratatouille and Wall-E can rightly stand as some of the best animated efforts not only of the past ten years, not only in CGI and not even just from American shores either, but among the finest works of its kind from any time, and any corner of the globe. Of course, it helps that all of these movies were done by the same assortment of directors– Brad Bird, Pete Doctor and Andrew Stanton, each of whom imbue their wildly divergent stories with their own individual creative stamps, making them stand out from the rest of the Pixar crop as much as possible.
This is important to note, because as strong and assured the voices Bird, Doctor and Stanton have as directors, it goes without saying that at Pixar they are by far not the only creative influences on any film they make, where projects have routinely been subject to extreme degrees of collaboration in the initial and sometimes cyclical script and storyboard stages, with work thrown out and begun again from scratch if deemed necessary from the group. In some cases, this creative shuffling has resulted in a project’s creator being replaced entirely as writer and/or director, with some of the more senior members of the studio brain trust taking point, instead. As such, when Brenda Chapman was ousted from the director’s position after setting much of the visual tone and atmosphere for the project in favor of Pixar veteran Mark Andrews on Brave, it may have generated a fair amount of attention from the press, but by all accounts it was more or less business as usual for those who follow the studio. It needn’t even have been terrible cause for alarm as far as the overall quality of the film was concerned– even Ratatouille began under the aegis of Jan Pinkava before being inherited and reinvented by Bird. But between that bit of authorial musical chairs and the news that joining as Andrew’s official co-director would be Steve Purcell, a recent Pixar recruit whose major accomplishments in the past were creating the cult hit absurdist-slapstick Sam & Max: Freelance Police comics, cartoon show and computer games, the likelihood of a confusing creative mixture behind the scenes becomes more and more palpable when viewing the finished results.
It’s unfortunate, because much of the film’s story and visuals ring true and clear through the distracting attempts to inject humor to an otherwise promising, challenging effort. The lush visuals provided by the studio and orchestrated by Chapman and Andrews stand as some of the most impressive period-fantasy world building this side of a Ridley Scott film, and the economy with which the directors (whoever they are) approach the various action and comedic set-pieces throughout at times rival the elegance of Studio Ghibli at their finest and most poignant. Furthermore, it’s not only enlivening to see the traditional Disney Princess archetype upended, but to see something of a return to the kinds of dynamic, engaged protagonists of any gender that we saw around the turn of their Renaissance period with The Little Mermaid. But some of the narrative gambles the film takes work in just enough weakness to allow some of the larger issues to take root– like The Little Mermaid, much of the story rests upon a second-act magical twist and transformation, but unlike that film Brave attempts to upend not only the usual Princess archetype but also the usual traditions for good-and-evil storytelling the Disney fairy tales thrive upon. It’s not just that there’s no Prince Charming to save the day– the ginger Princess with her bow-and-arrow prowess more than proves herself capable of standing as her own heroine– it’s that there’s no villain or true antagonist force besides a cursed force of nature for our heroine to fight against.
That wouldn’t be much of a problem if the film relied upon the natural drama of the situation rather than resorting to overdrawn slapstick comedy throughout, and as such much of the danger and excitement of the story remains blunted the the level of high-concept sitcom shenanigans up until the last stretches of the third act, just in time for the climax. Unlike much of the humor that glides through most Pixar projects, Brave‘s comedic elements feel especially targeted to keep up the flagging interests of younger viewers in what is essentially an emotional character piece between a mother and a daughter chaffing against her parenting. Much of it feels tacked on just to amuse kids about the same age as the three rampaging little brothers, who amount to the most unhinged Disney triplets since Huey, Duey and Louie. Even when the humor doesn’t quite feel inorganic, it has an unambitious feel to it– the low-hanging fruits of Scottish caricatures especially make the whole thing at times feel more like a Shrek sequel making dated Braveheart jokes than anything from Pixar. Granted, a shifting tone throughout isn’t necessarily a bad thing, especially when dealing with particular brands of sci-fi or fantasy that ask the audience make significant conceptual leaps, and even more especially so with animation– in some cases, it’s even a high mark of quality to see how quickly masters like Isao Takahata or Hideaki Anno can turn on a dime from deep, dark drama to whimsical flights of fancy, something that Pixar’s best and brightest come close to in their finest hours.
But in the case of Brave, so much of that time and creative energy feels like a waste compared to the short shrift so many other elements of the story are given– the treatment of magic especially, from the spritely blue will o’ the wisps to the eccentric old wood-carving witch is rendered so slight that they almost feel like afterthought plot-devices. This is in a sense the ultimate failure of the film, in how it neglects to fully develop some of its most promising and interesting elements in favor of punching up jokes throughout. But ultimately, even this element could be somewhat forgiven if Brave had the one thing that Pixar’s best efforts have in spades, and that a blend of personal idiosyncrasies and easily recognized fairy-tale archetypes needs the most– a unifying vision of its own. After all, Pixar isn’t the only animation studio to employ a revolving door of multiple filmmakers on a given project– looking at the list of directors on any given classic like Pinnochio, Bambi or Sleeping Beauty and trying to find the leader in them can feel like a war of attrition. But then those features and so many others had the overriding presence of Walt Disney as a producer to hold the whole creative ensemble together, resulting in movies that could blend all manner of tones and styles within any given story and still feel true to itself. It may be asking too much to expect Pixar to have an Uncle Walt of their own to shepherd their projects with that kind of finesse, but barring that you can do something even better, if not merely the next best thing– trust the artist.