It’s not fun to watch Pixar Animation Studios fail. During the days leading up to the release of the fiercely divisive Cars 2, I had watched the Rottentomatoes rating drop from the 70s to the 50s and down to the abysmal 33% it finds itself now. I’ve cultivated a fondness for Disney’s subsidiary animation studio as a vessel for inventive, oftentimes stunningly beautiful works of storytelling and art. But much to the bewilderment of many Pixar fans, the decision of the studio to release a sequel to the most objectionable title of all their releases – the forgettable (albeit better than most DreamWorks Animation titles) 2006 film Cars – has arrived with near universal loathing for a sequel fueled not by elegant storytelling or a fondness for crafting fine art, but for a means in which to expand a global merchandise market. According to media analyst Doug Creutz (noted in a Bloomberg article here), the original Cars movie has generated nearly $10 billion in global merchandise sales. A majority of the revenue derives from licensing the products which Disney collects up to 15% of the profits. And now withCars 2, undoubtedly filled with hundreds of new characters including planes and other vehicles, Pixar is unabashedly showing their gradual downfall to franchise and blatant commercialization. Then suddenly, from the dark, claustrophobic atmosphere of the multiplex, a new teaser trailer arrives that could mark a new high point for Pixar. Which brings us to the 2012 title that has set the movie community on edge: I’m talking about Brave.
Stirringly narrated by a gruff, yet ghostly sounding voice that evokes the very spirit of the foggy Scottish highlands, the teaser trailer for Brave(which I’ll post on our site) feels unlike anything Pixar’s ever done. The narrator explains in an accented tone, “The ancients spoke of it… It is the heart of this fierce land,” as the imagery closes in on ancient-looking ruins and swoops down on a misty lake sheltered in a gorgeous mountain valley. At this point, the teaser instantly recalls DreamWorks’s wondrous How to Train Your Dragon, a film with visuals, tone, and storyline that feel lifted directly from the words of an ancient bard singing praises to heroes past. The voice of the narrator most likely comes from Kevin KcKidd, a Scottish actor known for his roles in Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief, the TV series Rome, and the Call of Duty: Modern Warfare series as Soap MacTavish. As his voice continues, “It is carried in the wind…,” sounds of a phantomlike wind and the occasional eagle cry signifies the spiritual nature of the Scottish highlands and the bleak, yet beautiful moors. As if to affirm the mysticism of the land, he continues “borne of our legends…,” as a brief shot of a glowing blue spirit/fairy quickly arrives and departs like an all-pervading spirit of the forest. Japanese director and animator Hayao Miyazaki explored these themes as well, analyzing the relationship between man, nature, and spirituality through transcendental visuals like the one seen inBrave’s teaser. It’s also worthy to note that Miyazaki also features strong leading female protagonists in nearly all his films, set to the mysterious atmosphere of a land inspired by folklore and the boundless wonders of the natural surroundings. Pixar’s Brave is surprisingly the first Pixar film to feature a leading female protagonist, a blue-eyed and stunningly red-haired archeress named Merida that seems inspired from characters of Miyazaki past: the warriors San of Prince Mononoke and Nausicaä ofNausicaä of the Valley of the Wind are apparent.
As for the storyline, there are traces of classic “Disney princess” infused with a radical hybrid of Miyazaki, Macbeth, and even Braveheart. The official plot is as follows:
Since ancient times, stories of epic battles and mystical legends have been passed through the generations across the rugged and mysterious Highlands of Scotland. In Brave, a new tale joins the lore when the courageous (Kelly Macdonald) confronts tradition, destiny and the fiercest of beasts. 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, 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). ’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 to discover the meaning of true bravery in order to undo a beastly curse before it’s too late.
But the visuals! I can’t stress enough how otherworldly the animation appears, whether it’s the slight fogginess of a scene or the epically gorgeous rendition of the Scottish highlands. Shot after shot, Brave looks and feels like the soul of 1995’s Braveheart , through the obvious nod via title similarity and the awestruck nature of the film to the beauty of the highlands. I’ve even seen an early concept design of a character with blue war paint splattered on his face like the titular character of the 1995 film. The landscapes are ethereal emotions and moods, the flow of nature evoking such a disquieting uncanny secrecy that would certainly be a spectacle to behold on the big screen, especially in IMAX 3D. The teaser for Brave witnesses the redheaded archeress riding a Shetland pony through the dense wood and misty land before encountering an imposing bear, complete with glowing eyes and the winter chill of its breath, as the narrator powerfully concludes, “And when we are put to the test, it is the one thing, we must always be,” before the teaser brilliantly cuts to the title BRAVE.
And while Brave may act as Pixar’s sorry apology for the lousy Cars 2, it could also be a swan song that represents the final creative strengths of the studio. Why? Sequels. Pixar’s recent proclivity for needlessly extending franchises may end up the factor for the company’s demise as the paramount of all animation studios. And while Toy Story 3is undoubtedly one of the finest Pixar films ever released, I still harbor some qualms for the studio’s future plans to release sequels for titles that would better be left off as standalone titles. Monsters Inc. is getting a sequel (actually a prequel) entitled set for a 2013 debut. A follow-up to 2004’s The Incredibles is also reportedly under works, but the biggest offense to the Pixar sequel bandwagon has been hinted at by Tom Hanks while promoting his upcoming romantic comedyLarry Crowne to the BBC. Asked if a Toy Story 4 is in the works, Hanks let slip, “I think there will be, yeah. I think they’re working on it now.” The revelation is a complete surprise, especially when considering that Toy Story 3 successfully managed to produce closure for a trilogy of generation-defining, decade-spanning animated films. Then again, the 2010 movie’s total worldwide gross of over $1 billion may be at fault for Disney’s potential decision to follow up the franchise once again.
Does this signal an end of an era for Pixar? I like to believe it does, with the release of Cars 2 as the marking point for the beginning of the end. As the lowest rated Pixar film, one would imagine that the studio would avoid releasing more unnecessary sequels and revert back to producing inventive, heartfelt STANDALONE stories that define Pixar’s filmmaking strengths (Finding Nemo, Ratatouille, WALL·E). Yet the ultimate simplification of character development and narrative complexity that critics point out that plague Cars 2 appear the trend for Pixar’s upcoming sequels. The grossly immense budgets of recent animated films also reveal the filmmaking excess that sacrifices any memorable storytelling skill, as seen in Tangled’s absurd $260 million budget (currently the 2 highest film budget behind Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End’s $300 million), a factor that doesn’t really elevate the movie’s formulaic script (“But she’s an independent, strong-willed female protagonist!!!” whine many, “that’s progressive!” To which I point out, “Mulan.”) Pixar’s own reported $200 million budgets for Toy Story 3 andCars 2 expose the excess in which these films were created. Contrast this with the original Toy Story’s modest $30 million budget and its ultimate universal critical and commercial praise (100% rating on Rottentomatoes with a worldwide gross 12x the budget). Brave may eventually signify one of the last great Pixar animated features before all goes to franchise hell in the near future. It’s been a great 15 year ride, but everything may end up crashing down in the end. All the same, I honestly don’t think I’ve ever been more excited for an animated film than I am for Brave. Fingers crossed.