Film review – Brave (2012)

18 June 2012
Brave: Merida (voice by Kelly Macdonald)

Merida (voice by Kelly Macdonald)

The first Pixar fairy tale film, which is also the first Pixar film with a female protagonist, begins with a fantastic first act that is full of potential. Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald) is a young Scottish princess and a skilled archer who is completely disinterested in living the life of a princess. She is the antitheses of the type of female lead that appears in most classic Disney and contemporary non-Pixar Disney feature animation films. Such female leads are mostly either princesses who have been denied their birthright or beautiful young girls whose good deeds are rewarded by them becoming princesses through marriage. Instead Merida hates the demands that come with the dubious honour of being born into royalty. Her tangled, matted and wild red hair is a constant reminder of her defiance against the restrictive and mannered lifestyle she is supposed to lead. In one scene where she is forced to look presentable, she protests against the tight and uncomfortable clothes, which hamper her archery, and she plucks out a strand of hair from her bonnet in protest. She stands up to her parents who are pushing her into an arranged marriage and more than holds her own against the suitors who are presented to her. Everything about the first act of Brave suggests a story of independence and following your own path, so it is disappointing when it instead becomes a moralising tale about the importance of obeying your parents.

The main source of conflict in Brave is between Merida and her mother Queen Elinor (voiced by Emma Thompson). Initially audience sympathies are with Merida for being pressured into an arranged marriage, with Elinor depicted as the driving force behind the arrangement. Merida’s father King Fergus (Billy Connolly) is portrayed as far more supportive of Merida’s freedom, although he does little to prevent the situation, but is nevertheless let off the hook and is represented as just a bit goofy rather than an actual threat. At the key turning point in Brave, the message of the film becomes extremely confused. While Merida seems to have every reason to be angry with her mother and justified in taking action, her major act of defiance is shown to be extremely severe and destructive. Brave then becomes a redemption story about Merida undoing the harm she has caused.

The resulting film is about the mother and daughter dynamic where Merida must learn that mother knows best and that she was wrong to act against her. While Brave offers the suggestion of a fun filled adventure film, and while some kind of heroic journey is more often that not the core of such coming-of-age stories, the action in Brave is located within the castle and its immediate surrounds making it more a domestic drama. The middle and final acts of the film not only lack spirit, but contain a mixed and contradictory message, made even more bewildering by how Merida’s and Elinor’s attitudes change during the film. Brave wants the audience to believe that it really is in favour of people choosing their own fate, but it makes Merida suffer guilt for trying to escape hers and it presents her arranged marriage as a necessity for social stability. It is astonishing just how much Brave presents Merida’s desire for independence as a selfish act that could destabilise society and potentially result in war.

The male characters in Brave are also presented in a way that gives off mixed messages. On the one hand, they are all comical and somewhat ineffective. King Fergus is loveable and kind, but ultimately a bit of a windbag. He begins as the one who most sticks up for Merida, but ends up as one of the biggest threats to the physical safety of the women – albeit unintentionally. The other rulers are all hotheaded and filled with petty rivalries while the three suitors are a preening Alpha Male, an inarticulate lug and one who appears to be severely mentally handicapped. Nevertheless, it is ultimately the word of the men that dictates how things eventuate. The women get to ‘manipulate’ behind the scenes, but the men get the final say. While Disney and Pixar haven’t been afraid to kill off a parent in male-centric stories (Bambi, The Lion King, Finding Nemo) they instead merely have Fergus lose his leg, which is then played throughout the film for laughs. It’s as if the filmmakers were afraid to commit to a fully female centric film and felt the need to include the rule of the father, even though the father is mostly redundant throughout the film.

Brave argues that it is good for young women to demand independence and free will, but warns that if they push too hard they will potentially do irrevocable damage to their family and possibly society. Girls can have freedom, but only if that is okay with their parents. This film has the veneer of feminism and a strong female protagonist, but it still reinforces a lot of patriarchal constructs. The resolution appears progressive on the surface, but it is only possible with several conditions that are ultimately very conservative. Brave is the equivalent of a man patting a woman on the head and saying, ‘Go and exercise your free-will sweetie, but just make sure you play by my rules. Isn’t self-determination cute!’

Pixar don’t really need to ever prove themselves again having produced a consecutive string of outstanding animations that include WALL·E, Up and Toy Story 3; three of the best feature animations ever made. However, after the bland Cars 2 and now Brave it does feel worryingly like the good times may be coming to an end. Brave is a much more coherent and engaging film than Cars 2, but its troubling subtext and limp narrative hold it back. And like Cars 2, it seems to be aiming for more of a younger audience and has lost the sophistication of the earlier films where the humour wasn’t disposable and could be enjoyed on several levels. While the animation is the most complex seen in a Pixar film to date, it simply doesn’t contain the necessary magic, awe or wonder required for the visual style to overcome the narrative weaknesses. Maybe it is unfair to be so harsh on Brave because Pixar films are held to such a high standard, but watching Brave is a frustrating experience and mostly because it began with so much promise.

Thomas Caldwell, 2012

Film review – Cars 2 (2011)

19 June 2011

Cars 2: Grem (voice by Joe Mantegna), Acer (voice by Peter Jacobson), Siddeley (voice by Jason Isaacs), Lightning McQueen (voice by Owen Wilson), Mater (voice by Larry the Cable Guy), Finn McMissile (voice by Michael Caine)The original Cars is often regarded to be the least impressive of all the Pixar Animation Studio feature films, even though it’s still a lot of fun and like most Pixar films combines a good dose of pathos within the family friendly laughs. It just doesn’t have the same high level of characterisation, tight writing and heartfelt charm as the others, in particular the astonishing previous three feature films WALL·E, Up and Toy Story 3. So it does seem like an odd choice for Pixar to now return with a Cars sequel, although the massive shift in tone and focus make it feel more like a spin-off.  The protagonist of the original film Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) is now only a supporting character to Mater (voiced by Larry the Cable Guy) the rusty pick-up truck who is now upgraded from sidekick to lead character. While McQueen competes in races around the world, a case of mistaken identity sees Mater unwillingly becoming an international spy, teamed up with new characters Finn McMissile (Michael Caine) and Holley Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer).

Cars 2: Finn McMissile (voice by Michael Caine)

Finn McMissile (voiced by Michael Caine)

Overall Cars 2 has little to do with the original film and is instead a light-hearted spy thriller in the vein of James Bond films. Big action set pieces are mixed in with what feels like a never-ending series of visual and spoken puns about the film being set in a world populated by cars. The idea that Mater is a country-bumpkin car caught up in the adrenalin-charged and hi-tech world of espionage is also substantially milked for laughs. While he was a fun secondary character in the original film, as the lead character in Cars 2 he quickly wears out his welcome.

There are some nice swipes at the corrupt and ruthless behaviour of people who profiteer from dependence on petrol consumption, over more sustainable and efficient alternatives, but Cars 2 doesn’t have much more substance than that. The storyline is convoluted, the action is unengaging and the jokes in the film never succeed in provoking much more than the occasional smirk and roll of the eyes. The results are resoundingly mild. Cars 2 is not only the weakest Pixar film to date, but it’s the first one that can be sadly dismissed as not particularly worth seeing.

Thomas Caldwell, 2011

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Film review – Toy Story 3 (2010)

20 June 2010
Toy Story 3: Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen, Andy (John Morris) and Woody (Tom Hanks)

Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), Andy (John Morris) and Woody (Tom Hanks)

Woody the cowboy (voiced by Tom Hanks) and Buzz Lightyear the space ranger (voiced by Tim Allen) are back for the third instalment of Pixar Studio’s outstanding computer animated trilogy about the secret life of toys. This time however, the toys’ owner Andy is now 17, about to go off to college and no longer as close to his old friends as he used to be. Indeed, many of the toy characters from the previous films have been sold or given away leaving only the core gang behind with an uncertain fate.

Every since the original Toy Story heralded the arrival of computer animated feature films in 1995, Pixar Studios have been the leaders in making entertaining, intelligent and endearing films that appeal to all age groups. While the first Toy Story sequel was wonderful and arguably better than the original, it wasn’t until most recently with WALL·E and then Up that the Pixar films truly became something quite special. A strong degree of empathy was always present in the studio’s films but in WALL·E and Up the poignancy was spread throughout the entire films making the experience of seeing them an incredibly emotionally rewarding one. So with Toy Story 3 the question is can it live up to the incredibly high standards set by the first two Toy Story films and the previous two outstanding Pixar films? Fortunately the answer is a resounding yes.

Toy Story 3: Woody (Tom Hanks), Mr. Pricklepants (Timothy Dalton), Buttercup (Jeff Garlin), Trixie (Kristen Schaal)

Woody (Tom Hanks), Mr. Pricklepants (Timothy Dalton), Buttercup (Jeff Garlin), Trixie (Kristen Schaal)

Toy Story 3 ups the ante in everyway possible. From its exhilarating opening scene right through to its beautiful ending, it is a stunningly animated and written film. The advances in the animation are most apparent in the animation of the human characters, however, the doll like movement given in particular to Woody is even more sophisticated than ever. The action scenes are genuinely exciting and the stakes are so high in key scenes that the film generates a very real sense of threat to our beloved heroes. Toy Story 3 never becomes completely traumatic but it comes astonishingly close. This is easily the darkest and most upsetting of the trilogy but it is also the sweetest and most heartbreaking.

It is the writing and focus on character that has always made the Pixar films so strong and Toy Story 3 is no exception. The series has an internal “toy logic” that it always remains true to even while at its most inventive. All plot points and gags exist to facilitate the film as a whole so that while it is a busy film, nothing feels random or pointless. A large portion of the film follows the conventions of a prison film but the stylistic and narrative conventions evoked in Toy Story 3 are general enough to delight even the most casual filmgoer.

Toy Story 3: Barbie (Jodi Benson) and Ken (Michael Keaton)

Barbie (Jodi Benson) and Ken (Michael Keaton)

There are several great new characters introduced in this third chapter and they are all endeared to us very quickly. In particular, an acting hedgehog toy named Mr. Pricklepants (voiced by Timothy Dalton) is hilarious and the inclusion of Ken (voiced by Michael Keaton) allows for some great Ken and Barbie gags that the trilogy has surprisingly waited until now to capitalise on. There is also a great cameo by a mute Totoro, a much-loved Japanese animated character created by Studio Ghibli’s legendary animator Hayao Miyazaki.

Toy Story 3 does feel like the end and the resolution that the filmmakers have found is simply perfect. The ending remains true to the growing theme throughout the trilogy that the life a toy has with its owner will always be finite and the filmmakers have stayed true to this theme in a way that is genuine and sincere. Toy Story 3 is a remarkable film and a fitting conclusion to one of the most consistently enjoyable trilogies ever made.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

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Film review – Up (2009)

30 August 2009
Russell and Carl

Russell and Carl

It almost doesn’t seem fair. How on earth can other animation studios possibly compete with Pixar? After making so many computer animated classics from Toy Story onwards, Pixar then came out with WALL·E, which is not only one of the greatest animated films ever made but set a new standard for animation, intelligent storytelling in a family film, and getting the perfect blend of pathos and humour. So what does Pixar do next? They do it all again and produce Up, one of the most unlikely films of the year. The hero in Up is Carl Fredricksen (voiced by veteran television and film actor Edward Asner), an elderly widower. Rather than be forcibly removed from his home, Carl ties thousands of helium filled balloons to his house and flies it away to fulfil his lifelong dream of living in a remote part of South America known as Paradise Falls. Along the way Carl acquires the companionship of an over enthusiastic 8-year-old boy named Russell (new comer Jordan Nagai), a talking dog named Dug (voiced by Pixar regular Bob Peterson) and a rare bird that Russell names Kevin.

Directed by Pete Docter (who previously directed Monsters, Inc.) Up simply gets every element right. Paradise Falls is rendered beautifully and much of the scenery in the film has the same bizarre terrain of some of the weirder Warner Bros cartoons. The animation is not realistic but this actually allows it to be incredibly expressive. Up is a superbly plotted film with all aspects of the story having an overall purpose, which is often rare in other animated films that tend to simply rely on one event flowing into the other with little overall cohesion. Likewise, there are no throw away jokes in Up and all the humour is timed and designed to facilitate the film as a whole.

u340_1acs.sel8.cmyk.70.jpg_rgb_scaledThe characterisation in Up is also extremely impressive and we get considerable insight into both Carl and Russell. Carl is a grumpy old man but rather than being reduced to a stereotype, we get to learn and understand how he has arrived at the point of life that he is at and we can therefore empathise with him. If nothing else Up wonderfully challenges us to re-evaluate our attitudes towards older people by putting what we perceive to be their grumpiness into perspective.

Up is a glorious film about love, friendship and the spirit of adventure. It is about pursuing your dreams no matter what stage of life you are at. The action is thrilling, inventive and highly unusual while the dynamics between the characters are frequently hilarious and also incredibly poignant. The range of emotions that this beautiful, funny and surreal film will take you through is astonishing. Up is yet another triumph from the incredible Pixar studios.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2009

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Film review – Bolt (2008)

2 January 2009

Bolt is the new computer generated animation from the Walt Disney Animation Studios, conceived and produced under the guidance of John Lasseter who directed the Pixar classics Toy Story, A Bug’s Life, Toy Story 2 and Cars. While Bolt doesn’t quite contain the same charm and slick storytelling that defines the Pixar films, it is still a mostly enjoyable film that should appeal to all ages.

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Film review – Arthur and the Invisibles (2006)

25 December 2006

Ever since Toy Story in 1995 the most popular family films have been computer-animated stories that have simultaneously appealed to both children and their parents. Pixar and Dreamworks have skilfully dominated this market with great success by continuing to make films that contain enough cultural references and cross-generational humour to keep all age groups entertained. Despite the pleasures that such films create it does seem a pity that there are a lack of films these days that are unashamedly made for children (and the inner child within many adults). The 1980s saw the release of many magical films that were aimed solely at children of all ages and it seems that with Arthur and the Invisibles Luc Besson has attempted to recreate the mood of these films.

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