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Feature


Merida is a skilled archer and impetuous daughter of King Fergus (Billy Connolly) and Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson). Determined to carve her own path in life, Merida defies an age-old custom sacred to the uproarious lords of the land: massive Lord MacGuffin (Kevin McKidd), surly Lord Macintosh (Craig Ferguson) and cantankerous Lord Dingwall (Robbie Coltrane). Merida's actions inadvertently unleash chaos and fury in the kingdom, and when she turns to an eccentric old Witch (Julie Walters) for help, she is granted an ill-fated wish. The ensuing peril forces Merida to discover the meaning of true bravery in order to undo a beastly curse before it's too late. (From the official Disney synopsis)

Brave
Brave was released not only under the shadow of Pixar’s still impeccable brand name, it was released as the studio’s only non-sequel/prequel since 2009’s Up, sandwiched between unnecessary films like Toy Story 3 (very good, but still unnecessary), Cars 2, and next year’s Monster University (again, it could be great, but is entirely unnecessary). Those of us more concerned with the studio’s ongoing pedigree (and not the money their films take in) put a lot of energy into wanting Brave to be a success on par with Wall-E, Ratatouille, and Finding Nemo. Critics, fans, and journalists were referring to Brave as some kind of last hope. This went beyond high expectations; we were putting all of our eggs in one basket. This matter of expectations colours the entire experience of watching this film, similar to the way it colours a Star Wars prequel, a Star Trek reboot, or an adaptation of a beloved novel. It makes standalone critical analysis incredibly difficult for anyone with any investment in the property.

Before I go any further, I’d like to acknowledge the film’s occasionally difficult production history. Brave’s original writer, director, and all-around conceptual guardian Brenda Chapman (co-director of DreamWorks’ Prince of Egypt) was replaced by Mark Andrews (a long-time storyboard artist at the studio and Brad Bird collaborator). This type of move isn’t unheard of at Pixar (or Disney for that matter). The studio replaced Jan Pinkava with Brad Bird on Ratatouille at the beginning of production and also reportedly made huge changes to Toy Story 3’s story very late into production. Still, Chapman, who was still relatively new to Pixar at the time, was the studio’s first female director and the incident left a bad taste in some fans’ mouths. All of the behind the scenes shenanigans, coupled with the fact that most animated features that aren’t directed by a tyrant like Brad Bird are group efforts, anyway, leaves me unsure who to credit as writer or director while discussing the film’s high and low points. Because of this, I’m going to refer to the guilty party as ‘the filmmakers,’ rather than specifying a name throughout the rest of this review.

Brave
It seems to me that, above everything, the thing that makes a Pixar movie special is an original story. Pixar questions what happens to our toys when we aren’t looking, how a rat can become a top chef, and what happens when a little boy and an elderly man take a balloon trip to South America. Brave does not fit this mould. With its musical elements, unlikely princess lead, and period story focus, it often feels more like a Disney movie than a Pixar movie. The oft-told tropes have only been slightly reframed in a slightly more unique era/location. This clearly didn’t escape the filmmakers, because there’s a constant sense of them fighting against the similar visual and stylistic choices made by the creators of How to Train Your Dragon and Tangled (note: Brenda Chapman is married to Tangled director Kevin Lima). The first act is mostly briskly paced and makes good use of the audience’s familiarity with the tropes to keep the expositional bits moving. This preps us for the as we finally arrive at the stuff that the creators managed to keep secret before the film’s release. The second and third acts feature more surprises and cracking adventure, but not quite the distinguished brand of storytelling we expect from Pixar.

What isn’t missing here is proliferation of the studio’s freakish ability to cut our feelings right to the marrow. Even when they aren’t telling original stories that buck the genre’s clichés and openly embrace blind sentiment, the filmmakers manage to find the genuinely touching moments that make their audiences keen like petulant little babies. It’s almost a crime that the suspense and melodrama of the climax work as well as it does, because it never once feels like the movie has truly earned such sympathies. The comedy runs a bit more hot and cold. The more problematic gags are the Shrek-level potty humour, a lot of which made the film’s trailers for some reason, and the overuse of ‘awkward’ pauses. The slapstick, on the other hand, offers grade-A prime mirth and the character-based comedy usually works, which is especially important when certain characters to lose their speaking abilities. The slapstick is conceptually good and the characters are well-rounded and well-acted, but it is the incredibly lively animation that really sells the funny stuff beyond the lacklustre screenplay. These may be the most expressive human characters I’ve ever seen in a CG animated film. The sprightly, exaggerated characters are anchored by luscious and rustic natural settings. The filmmakers also avoid the temptation to spin and shift their virtual camera all over the place, opting instead for a grounded filmmaking style that could’ve easily been achieved in reality, maybe even five decades ago. It’s possible that these choices were made in an effort to keep the film from looking too chaotic in digital 3D, but whatever the cause, the effect is certainly nice.

Brave

Video


At this point in my life there are few things more boring than describing and re-describing the impeccable image quality of a multi-million dollar, CG-animated blockbuster on Blu-ray. Presented in 2.35:1, full 1080p video, Brave looks categorically fantastic. Sigh. The only thing that makes this particular review interesting is that Brave is a more texturally intricate film than similar movies I most recently reviewed for the site, specifically Madagascar 3 and The Lorax. Much of the film’s imagery bridges a delicate gap between hyper-realistic and hyper-animated giving us an incredibly lush and vivid HD experience. Detail sharpness and clarity is best served by a plethora of different textures used in the film. It gets to the point that you aren’t sure the texture artists haven’t gone out of their way to not repeat themselves. Almost every kind of plant, breed of animal, set material, piece of cloth, and, of course, type of hair is given its own special surface character. The utter clarity of the transfer may make your fingertips tingle. And even if Brave had featured a less organic look, this transfer’s HD capabilities would still be well-served by the complex decorative patterns, busy action scenes (which never feature compression blocking effects), and vibrant colour qualities. There are the thematic hues and base palettes of different locations (the forest is green, the castle is warm, nighttime is blue, the ruins are mostly black and white), but the most consistently outstanding chromatic quality are the highlights of Merida’s red hair and green dress, both of which mark the character, even in otherwise dark wide shots. Sometimes, the contrast levels appear a bit high, which does make the animation look more ‘animation-y,’ but this shouldn’t be confused with sharpening effects like edge haloes, of which there are none. I’m guessing this choice was made to counteract the darkening effects glasses cause while watching a 3D version of the film. By the way, Disney was nice enough to send me the set that includes the 3D Blu-ray disc, but I am still unable to review 3D releases with my current set-up.

Audio


This release’s impeccable image quality is matched by a wonderfully rich, busy and aggressive Dolby TrueHD 7.1 soundtrack. It seems that the biggest story here is that Disney is opting for TrueHD over DTS-HD Master Audio. The soundtrack also matches the image quality’s mix of natural and cartoonish qualities, which makes for a diverse and immersive track that doesn’t draw excessive attention to its aural qualities (note: the sound mix was designed by long-time Pixar collaborator Gary Rydstrom). The mostly comedic human fight sequences and big, serious, action scenes do feature some indulgent, zippy, directional movement (part and parcel with the 3D enhancement), but the track is at its best when dealing more in ambience and the blending of naturalistic sound layers. This includes widely spread ‘magical’ effects, realistic forest sounds, and objects moving past camera with a directionally appropriate ‘whoosh.’ The sequence where Merida’s brothers trick her father and his hunting party into following a phantom bear throughout the castle and the scene where Merida and her mother quietly listen to the ‘forest wisps’ as the camera circulates both end up standing above even the violent, roaring, tumbling bear fights as my choices for the disc’s demo moments. This brings me to the music. Patrick Doyle’s traditional Gaelic/Celtic score is perfectly pitched for the subject matter and visuals. It sounds gloriously intricate on the track and is given reign throughout the channels. Alex Mandel’s original songs, on the other hand, approach Phil Collins levels of over-stating the obvious and are a pretty big problem for the tone of the piece. I understand what the filmmakers were trying to do here, but I think they whiffed it and lost some of the emotion of the first two acts in the process.

Brave

Extras


The extras begin on the first disc with an audio commentary featuring pick-up director Mark Andrews, co-director Steve Purcell, story supervisor Brian Larsen, and editor Nick Smith. Andrews, always a character, is the ruler/host of the track and is very, very loud. He’s mostly entertainingly loud, but also super-annoying at times. The discussion is constant (there’s almost no blank space, just breaks from Andrews’ energy), but not always consistent in terms of content. Sometimes, the commentators get a little too interested in describing on-screen action or patting the crew on the back. But the bulk of the track is full of good behind-the-scenes information and thematic discussion, which is the most interesting when you realize they’ve failed to convey what they intended. My biggest problem with the track is not an unexpected one – no one ever really discusses Brenda Chapman’s version of the film or really Brenda Chapman at all. I had minor hope that they would, based on how open Brad Bird was on all the Ratatouille extras about what he changed from Jan Pinkava’s screenplay and development.

Next up are two short films. La Luna (7:00, HD), the adorably surrealist story of a little boy cleaning the moon with (what I’m guessing are) his father and grandfather, accompanied Brave upon its original theatrical release. The Legend of Mor’du (6:50, HD) feels a bit like an extended scene from the film and is really more of a beautiful motion comic than an animated short.

The behind the scenes material is broken down into eight featurettes. Brave Old World (12:40, HD) covers pre-production trips to Scotland for research, complete with video footage/photographs and comparison images to the final film. Merida & Elinor (8:20, HD) features the actors and filmmakers discussing the film’s central mother/daughter relationship, including character design, costume design, and hair simulation. Bears (6:10, HD) covers the research and design of the film’s bears. Brawl in the Hall (5:30, HD) is all about the film’s extended, light-hearted, multi-character battle, including co-director Andrews’ in-person choreography. Wonder Moss (2:50, HD) explains the way mathematics create the film, specifically the math of the moss that covers the Scottish backgrounds. Magic (7:10, HD) covers the process of capturing the concept of ‘magic’ on screen, specifically the design of the wisps, the witch, and the ruins. Clan Pixar (4:50, HD) takes at look at the many Scottish-themed down-time activities at the studio, including the eating of haggis and wearing kilts. Once Upon a Scene (7:50, HD) covers the films ‘over 100’ deleted/alternate scenes, their content, and the process of removing them, including storyreel footage of these scenes. I find that I actually prefer these alternate ideas and concepts. I also notice there’s no real discussion of what exactly belonged to the film’s original writer/director Chapman. This section and the disc one extras end with four extended scenes (some with finished animation) introduced by Andrews – Meet the Lords (3:20, HD), Triplets’ Distraction (3:20, HD), The Ruins (4:20, HD), and Blockade (1:30, HD).

Brave
The wide range of interview subjects throughout the featurettes includes directors Chapman and Andrews, co-director/screenwriter Steve Purcell, screenwriter Irene Mecchi, producer Katherine Sarafian, production designer Steve Pilcher, story supervisor Brian Larsen, shading director Tia Kratter, story artist Louis Gonzales, set designer Derek Williams, tour guides Alex Mackey and Iain Stewart, simulation shot lead Henry Garcia, supervising technical directors Bill Wise and Steve May, simulation supervisor Claudia Chung Sanii, director of photography/lighting Danielle Feinberg, character development & animation John Chun Chiu Lee, cloth artist Fran Kalal, art director – characters Matt Nolte, character modeling & articulation artist Lou Hamou-Lhadj, animation lead Colin Thompson, groom artist Laura Hainke, character development lead Dovi Anderson, character modeling artist Tanja Krampfert, supervising animator Steven Hunter, art director Noah Klocek, crowd leads Paul Kanyuk and Paul Mendoza, sets – forest development Inigo Quilez, development & effects artist Chris Chapman, directing animator Kureha Yokoo, technical artist Patrick Guenette, composer Patrick Doyle, story artist Emma Coats, first assistant editor Sarah Reimers, and actors Emma Thompson, Robbie Coltrane, Kelly MacDonald, Craig Ferguson, Kevin McKidd, and Billy Connelly.

Disc two starts with Fergus & Mor’du (2:40, HD), a partially finished alternate opening to the film, followed by Fallen Warriors (2:10, HD), a montage of finished animation outtakes, both with an introduction from Andrews. Up next are a series of briefer featurettes, including: Dirty Hairy People (3:30, HD), a look at the rustic nature of medieval Scotland and the filmmakers’ attempts to recreate the look in animation, It Is English…Sort Of (3:50, HD) on the process of using Scottish dialogue in the film, Angus (3:30, HD) on the technical aspects of the film’s main horse character, and The Tapestry (4:00, HD) on the advances in CG textures for fabric representation. The disc is completed with promotional material, trailers, and five image galleries.

Brave

Overall


Brave isn’t quite the original feature we wanted from Pixar amid all these sequels and prequels. It’s a familiar story, well-told, well-acted, and extravagantly animated, which is enough to call it ‘good.’ In this case good will have to suffice, though I can imagine it losing its charm a bit on subsequent viewings. This Blu-ray’s 2D transfer and Dolby TrueHD 5.1 soundtrack (note: not DTS-HD MA) are expectedly perfect. Extras are sufficient, though I’m not sure why we needed the additional disc to house them.

* Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality.


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