The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO


June 29, 2012

Benji Tunnell: 'Brave' falters on storytelling, but still delivers

JOPLIN, Mo. — There was a time when I was very trusting. I looked for the good in everyone, took them at their word, and gave them the benefit of the doubt whenever possible. Though I was let down on occasion, it wouldn’t deter me. I would go right back to believing the best in all that I could. Then came last summer. After a relationship dating back 17 years, I learned that there were those who were not all that I had thought them to be. I saw the uglier, seedier side of betrayal.

After a dozen solid to great films, Pixar released “Cars 2.”

I have talked to several “Cars 2” defenders, but their arguments are based solely on nostalgia for the brand or Larry the Cable Guy love. Neither was enough for me, and thus my relationship with Pixar was tarnished. That is why I approached the release of their latest film, “Brave,” with more than a little apprehension. I was hesitant to allow myself too much hope, unwilling to put my heart on the line only to have it hurt yet again.

“Brave” is the story of Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald), a strong-willed Scottish lass who wants the right to choose her own future rather than have it forced upon her.

Merida comes from a fractured land where four clans have broken apart, and the only way to try to reunite them is for the eldest son of one of the clans to win the princess’ hand in competition. But Merida opts, as the eldest child of her clan, to fight for her own hand. Chaos erupts and her mother, Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson), attempts to dispel the chaos by allowing Merida to choose her suitor. The impetuous princess instead flees the castle and hires a witch to create a spell that will allow her to change her fate. The potion she concocts has dire consequences upon both Merida and her family.

Here is where “Brave” begins to unravel a bit.

It almost plays as two different types of movies. As Merida begins to assert her independence and begins working to break free of staid traditions, the movie plays as a girl empowerment film, showing a strong-willed young lady working to make a better future for herself. Then, when the witch enters the picture, the film goes down a different path, becoming a sometimes slapstick, sometimes overly earnest quest to undo what she has done. The two pieces don’t fit well with each other, and because of this, the film isn’t nearly as successful in its storytelling as it should have been. Had the screenwriters chosen one story line to embrace, it would have been more effective overall.

That isn’t to say it’s a bad film. The animation is, once again, top notch, showing that Pixar continues to lead the pack in computer artwork. There are far more worthy contenders now, for certain, but the grandfather of the animation style shows why all others are still emulators, not innovators.

Equally good is the voice work. Macdonald and Thompson are the emotional center of the film, and as such have to carry more than the others. But Billy Connolly, criminally underutilized in both film and television today, is great when called upon to drive the film’s humor. His King Fergus expertly delivers the film’s jokes and laughs.

Cute, if sometimes cloying, are the troublesome triplets. They exist solely for comic relief and, presumably, marketing, but their brand of humor becomes wearying.

Where the movie is truly lacking is in the heart that Pixar has instilled in (most) of its other films. The filmmakers try, but just can’t seem to capture the emotional impact they are looking for. Whereas the “Toy Story” trilogy and “Up” carried an emotional wallop, the tender moments in “Brave” only register a glancing blow.

I guess that we should all be grateful that we don’t have another “Cars 2” on our hands. Pixar does bounce back, at least partway, with a fun, girl-centric adventure tale that, while not as dynamic as one might have hoped, still delivers a pretty satisfying ride.

It is the first necessary step in repairing the damage done to our collective trust, and it is a positive one in the right direction. It is not flawless, as I unfairly expect Pixar to be. We all know that they are capable of delivering the extraordinary. I guess sometimes ordinary will just have to be enough.

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