Sunday, 26 August 2012

Brave: An Impression

After months and months of waiting, first for the UK release, then for the weekend due to my new short-term job (more on that soon) I finally got to watch Pixar's Brave with my family last weekend.

Having been tormented by reviews and articles for months labeling the film "good" or "bad" or "unlike" a Pixar film, I was determined to not let my opinion be swayed by their judgements and hopefully enjoy it for what it was. And in the end I did, but in this particular case there are small issues to the story that my friends and I aren't sure how to deal with due to the circumstances of the film's production. So firstly, a little introduction.

When Brave was first announced several years ago as The Bear and the Bow, my friends and I were so excited about the new Pixar film, their first title to be set in a fairytale and not only to feature a female protagonist, but the studio's first feature film directed by woman, non other than Brenda Chapman who co-directed Dreamwork's The Prince of Egypt with Steve Hickner and Simon Wells, another favourite of mine. Later re-titled as Brave, the project was originally pitched and directed by Brenda Chapman who took on Steve Purcell as co-director and Steve Pilcher as concept artist.

Merida concept by Steve Pilcher
Then in a highly controversial move, Pixar removed Brenda from the project in 2010 and hired Mark Andrews to direct over alleged "creative differences". Much has been speculated over this decision, indeed it is not the first time a Director has been replaced in animation or even for Pixar. Brad Bird took over from Jan Pinkava for Ratatouille and Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise replaced Richard Purdum on Disney's Beauty and the Beast and of course the infamous The Thief and Cobbler which was taken from Richard Williams and practically butchered into an pale imitation of the original masterpiece. Nonetheless, the bad press Pixar have since received for denying Brenda of what could have been a truly groundbreaking film, is perhaps reason for concern. When the credits started rolling on Brave I felt a twist in my gut seeing Mark Andrews name appear before (and not next to) Brenda Chapman's name as director. Nothing against the filmmaker of course, but the circumstances are unfortunate.

Now it has been revealed that Brenda has left Pixar and is possibly headed for Lucas Films Animation. She had this to say in the New York Times:
It has been a heartbreakingly hard road for me over the last year and a half. When Pixar took me off of “Brave” – a story that came from my heart, inspired by my relationship with my daughter – it was devastating. Animation directors are not protected like live-action directors, who have the Directors Guild to go to battle for them. We are replaced on a regular basis – and that was a real issue for me. This was a story that I created, which came from a very personal place, as a woman and a mother. To have it taken away and given to someone else, and a man at that, was truly distressing on so many levels. But in the end, my vision came through in the film. It simply wouldn’t have worked without it (and didn’t at one point), and I knew this at my core. So I kept my head held high, stayed committed to my principles, and was supported by some strong women (and men!). In the end, it worked out, and I’m very proud of the movie, and that I ultimately stood up for myself, just like Merida, the protagonist in “Brave.”

There have also been statements from director Mark Andrews and producer Katherine Sarafian, but when adressing the director changeover, they skirt around the topic. Mark Andrews had this to say in an article in the Metro "I think Brenda and her team just kind of got stuck in labour. We gave it every chance but we had a release date and this is a business, at the end of the day." (

Further clues are given in more Brenda Chapman interviews as slowly the story can be pieced together.

"It does get difficult when a project goes on too long. Brave’s release date kept getting pushed back after Disney bought Pixar to accommodate sequels of other Pixar films and other Disney animated films. Ideas that were once thought brilliant or funny started to feel tired and not so funny--not because they had changed, but because people got bored with seeing them so often. It’s heartbreaking some of the ideas that we lost just because people couldn’t remember their initial good reaction to them. "
"My other favorite is when both Elinor and Merida go too far after the archery scene where Merida wins herself. When Merida slashes the tapestry and Elinor retaliates by throwing the bow in the fire, they both have gone beyond what they should have. Merida is too young and inexperienced to realize her mistake in the moment, but Elinor is quicker to regret and know she has behaved badly. Her remorse gives the audience reason to love her and sympathize with her. Haven’t we all at one time or the other let ourselves cross the line and know that we didn’t do the right thing--set the good example? I do regret how the scene was eventually cut--it was only a few seconds longer, but it gave the characters more time to feel and register their emotions--as well as the audience. It feels a bit rushed to me in its current version. Nonetheless, it still gets the point across, and does its job." 

Who was really in charge of changing Merida's fate?

Because of this, I find it a very difficult film to judge: what was Brenda responsible for and what did Mark Andrews change when he came onto the film? Shouldn't the film be just as good no matter who worked on it? Perhaps the real reasons will never be known as whatever is said would sound petty and there is also confidentiality between them and Pixar. As much as I love Pixar and it's not right to start pointing out who to blame, this whole production has unintentionally revealed much of their inner workings, for better or worse. 

As much as I have rambled about the backstory of Brave, I do actually intend to speak about the film itself too. All in all, I still loved the film. I adored the characters--they are a triumph and shine through despite everything. Merida is strong, funny and resourceful. She doesn't get 'bowled over' by a Prince in the beginning, middle or end of the film and works hard to save the day on her own. A few papers have complained about the fact that she's still "a Disney Princess" but she certainly doesn't act like one! Perhaps by this point, a Princess rejecting marriage could just be taken as standard, as opposed to making a big deal of it. Merida could have had her adventure without the undesired prospect of marriage spurring her motivations, it didn't have to be such a big factor, but it's still refreshing to see a Princess stand with her family rather than suitor for once.

Merida's parents; Elinor, Fergus as well as the wi--I mean, 'wood carver' are all wonderful characters too and all of the voice acting is to such a marvelous standard, I particularly love all the rich Scottish accents, they bring such personality to the cast! The attention to detail is superb, from the little dimple or scar in Elinor's chin to the curls in Merida's hair and the decorative bears that litter the film's environments.

The most gorgeous CGI hair yet! If only I could have mine like that...
Visually, the film is groundbreaking. The environments, colours and lighting and the realism of performance in the acting is fantastic as usual. The bear performances are incredibly realistic, especially spell-binding transitions between distinctly human/animal behaviour. And of course the stunning hair and clothing simulation! My sister and I came out of the cinema raving about Merida's hair! So much so that my Mother and I braided my youngest sister's hair that evening so that it was all curly the following morning. Being a log, wavy brunette, I've always wanted bouncy ringlets and red hair is so beautiful! My sketchbooks are getting very side tracked into continuous Merida fanart! The environments are a true feat and are clearly well observed. After reading the 'art of' book though, it stated a few times that a huge chunk of the film was going to be set in a snowy Winter and the artwork for these sequences was so incredible I am very sad it didn't make it into the film! 

The music is wonderful and fits the style and location so well, I was very pleased to hear Mumford and Sons take part in the soundtrack as well and the traditional Scottish style helps tie it all together. My favourite track has to be Elinor and Merida's lullaby, which is all at once haunting, beautiful and emotional. Sung in Gaelic, it is a wonderful melody.

But criticism-wise, my concerns are mostly story related. The characters are fantastic and are entertaining as stand-alone individuals as well as when they are together. To those I've spoken to however, it's like the film had a solid beginning and end but no particular "middle". I expected a perilous, epic journey over the course of the film, but in fact most events take place in or around the castle where they live. The locations outside of the castle don't feel that far away or difficult to get too. It didn't feel like it was the right 'scale' for an adventure story. Despite the awful curse that Merida and Elinor face in the story, there was no real sense of danger or pressure until the very end.

A couple of scenes even felt to me like they were in the wrong order; Merida's "speech" in the middle felt like a realisation for the end and the discovery of a certain character's 'absence' should have happened earlier as I'm sure someone would have noticed after a whole day and night. When Elinor's crown is misplaced, nobody mentions it later on, despite the significance the cinematography placed on it. The jokes were good but at times made the story feel too light-hearted and took some of the sincerity away. The story had consequences and lots of important things at stake, but the execution of it at times reduced this scale and didn't feel like the gripping, unpredictable stories of previous Pixar films.

Indeed, Brenda Chapman also stated in the previously quoted article that, "for a plot, I try to plan what my beginning and end will be, then figure out the path between those two points. But many people like to write “straight ahead” figuring out what happens next as they go and know the end only when they get there. I find that approach sends me on too many wild goose chases and I burn out. Others love that discovery process. I think it just depends on the writer and what feels right to them." So potentially she had the beginning and end all worked out and the middle was still being worked on at the point Mark Andrews became Director, but this is just speculation.

There has been another article comparing the differences between Brave and other Pixar films (claiming that it feels more like a Disney film, which makes sense considering Brenda's background) but I won't describe them here as I personally felt a lot of them were unjust or scraping the barrel to find extra content.

Of course, most scenes were lovely, the intro was adorable with a young Merida and every scene with Merida and Elinor together was just magical. Fortunately the ending was pure brilliance too, redeeming most issues with the middle. The conclusion was perfect and afterwards my Mother turned to my sister and I and asked "is my mascara running?". The character conflicts all came together and were resolved in an action-packed climax with spectacular music and visuals so I was very happy to see the story conclude properly.

In conclusion, I'd like to say that Brave is a perfect film after all the expectations I built around it, and while I enjoyed it immensely and there are many aspects I loved, I feel that I can't rave about it completely. At times I even found myself at a loss for words at how to express my thoughts on it (which is partly why this "review" is a week late) because of what I had read about its production. Perhaps if I had watched it without knowing who directed it and all the politics of it, I would think differently. Instead, I feel very sad that the project was taken from the original creator and even that we have possibly been robbed from what was nearly a classic and I think that clouds my perception.

I do however, urge viewers to check it out and make up their own minds in this case. It's a lovely film nonetheless and great for families with children. Fortunately it has a wonderful pro-family and feminist message that makes a refreshing change from usual boy-centric cinema. How many animated films with mother/daughter relationships as the main focus do you know? Now compare that with animation about father/son relationships. Exactly.

Thank you Brenda Chapman for these beautiful characters and ideas and hopefully this film and others will indicate a change for the better in female cinema roles! All the best for your filmmaking future. :)