Pixel Perfect

The animation giant proves its worth by teaming up with Disney for Brave

A friend recently asked me if, because I see so many movies, there are any directors whose work I always look forward to see. Sadly, I couldn’t come up with one name since, in recent years, even my favorites have failed me (Thinking back on it now, I would have listed Chris Nolan, Tarantino and David Fincher). But there is one studio whose movies, with one exception, I’ve always gone to with high expectations: Pixar.

The exception was Cars 2, for which I had no interest (because of its lackluster predecessor Cars). But Brave, Pixar’s newest co-venture with Disney, easily puts the company back on top of the animation world. It’s the closest they’ve yet come to standard fairy tale territory, yet there’s nothing standard about it. This is a movie that’s going to please viewers of every age, and because of its central mother-daughter relationship premise, it might even iron out problems between real-life troubled teens and perplexed parents.

The setting is Scotland, in some long-ago, unidentified era. Good King Fergus (voice of Billy Connolly) is a fair and happy ruler, and a wonderful husband and father. He’s also big and bulky, kind of goofy, and wears a prosthetic leg due to a battle with a ferocious bear. You know that phrase about behind every good man, there’s a great woman? That’s the case here. Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson) really runs things around the castle. She makes sure the king stays on the straight and narrow, keeps up with their three pesky young triplets (“Boys, don’t play with your haggis!”), and tries to make a proper young lady out of their feisty and free-willed teenager, Merida (Kelly Macdonald), hoping that music and etiquette lessons will overshadow the king’s preference of teaching his daughter how to use a bow and arrow.

It’s not hard to figure out what Merida would rather be doing, especially when mom announces that per tradition, it’s time for suitors from all over kingdom to come by and compete for the hand of the princess. Nope, Merida has no interest in this betrothal business, insisting to mom, in a fit of pique, “This marriage is what you want!”

From all of this, in the midst of wildly slapstick bits involving kids and dogs and food, melees featuring head butts and eye pokes, thundering action sequences, and some slightly racy kilt jokes, comes a story of pathos and humor, of words and deeds that some regret ever saying and doing, of magic gone wrong.

There’s teen confusion and angst, and major decisions are made without being thought through. There’s also that magic — this is, after all, a fairy tale — involving graceful, floating will o’ the wisps, an old witch in the woods and Merida’s desire to make a wish that will “change my mom and change my own fate.”

And so we pick up on another phrase: Be careful what you wish for. As with so many stories like this, the wish goes wrong. But atypically, especially for a Disney film, the witch who casts the spell here isn’t evil. In fact, she’s really more of an absentminded artist – a wood carver by trade – who forgets to mention all of the rules.

All I’ll reveal is that mom loses her ability to speak, which leads to the real magic of the film: the brilliance of the CGI animators to make mom’s every thought, every complicated emotion, fully understood via eye and ear movements and body language. It’s a truly stunning achievement, one that, complemented by a script that smoothly ranges from raucous and funny to sad and wistful, makes Brave a frontrunner for next year’s animation Oscar.

BRAVE | Rated PG
Directed by: Mark Andrews, Brenda Chapman, and Steve Purcell
Starring: Kelly Macdonald, Bruce Connolly, Emma Thompson

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