Thirteen is supposed to be unlucky. Many hotels don’t even have a 13th floor. But for the Pixar Animation crew it’s just another number in their unbelievable string of hits: “Toy Story” (1995), “A Bug’s Life” (1998), “Toy Story 2” (1999), “Monsters, Inc.” (2001), “Finding Nemo” (2003), “The Incredibles” (2004), “Cars” (2006), “Ratatouille” (2007), “WALL-E” (2008), “Up” (2009), “Toy Story 3” (2010), “Cars 2” (2011) . . . and now, their 13th success, “Brave” (2012).
What kind of water are they drinking in Emeryville, California? Sequels are normally the kiss of death, and Pixar approached three of them with the same enthusiasm and invention as the originals. Hype and expectations can kill a film, but not with Pixar. They’re still the Babe Ruths of animation. Every time they step up to the plate, people expect a home run. And darned if they didn’t clear the fence again with “Brave”—despite covering more familiar Disney territory.
I’m tempted to begin by saying that the cinematography is breathtaking, but of course it’s all 3D CG animation. Then again, “Brave” IS highly cinematic, with stunning helicopter shots and tracking shots—combined with a steady rotation of two-shots, close-ups, reaction shots, and stationary camera shots—that make you feel as if you’re watching a film featuring characters who just happen to be animated.
Set in the Scottish Highlands during what appears to be the Late Middle Ages, “Brave” tells a simple fairytale story with familiar core situation: a princess who balks at a traditional, arranged marriage. In the castle of King Fergus, tradition reigns. Though he has three little redheaded terrors (I mean sons), he still takes tremendous pride in his daughter’s athletic prowess and archery skill. But when she reaches the age of marriage, he informs her that all of the clans will be summoned together so that each may present one suitor to compete for her hand.
Disney, who got into “Be careful what you wish for” transformations with two versions of “Freaky Friday” and a number of other films, does it again with Princess Merida, a red-haired tomboy who hates how inflexible her mother is and obtains a spell that would “change” Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson), who backs the arranged marriage.
What happens next is reminiscent of a less successful Disney film, “Brother Bear,” in which an Inuit boy is changed into a bear because the spirits were angry with him. Animal transformations are central to Native American belief systems; early Scottish belief systems, not so much. I’ve scoured the mythology books to see if maybe I’m overlooking something, but the only thing that turns up is a brief mention of a Celtic bear god named Matunos who was worshipped in ancient times. Then again, it really doesn’t matter.
What matters is that as much as the bear incident is familiar and as much as other segments will remind you of “The Princess and the Frog” without the music, “Brave” manages to charm, frame-by-frame, with that old black Pixar-Disney magic. And, as has been the case with Disney since “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” the magic is in the details. Though there are no songs to jump-start the movie, “Brave” has plenty of energy that derives from the magic of seeing yet another world created by Pixar. It may not be as original as other Pixar films, but there are small delights in every frame. And Pixar has mastered Disney’s methods of creating animated characters who look, talk, move, act, and have the emotional core of real humans—well, enough, at least, for us to believe them as characters with a working heart and brain.
Kelly Macdonald gives a spirited voice performance as Merida, while Billy Connolly nails it as the boisterous, one-legged King of the Scots. After that, though, the minor characters and major characters recede into the magic of this animated medieval tapestry. They’re just another detail in a magical, visual journey. Like Merida’s tiny triplet brothers, “Brave” is a ball of constant energy that blends action, humor, and life-lessons aimed at the wee ones. But adults should be charmed by it as well. One thing that’s fascinating is to see how far Disney princesses have come since Snow White. Not only does Merida stand up to her father and out-shoot every archer in Scotland, but she is ultimately fine not marrying at all, if no one exceptional comes along. Now that’s a princess that even the staunchest feminist can embrace.
I recommend getting the 5-disc Ultimate Collector’s Edition, even if you don’t have 3D now. If home theater 3D survives, this is one great-looking film on 3D—the best I’ve seen so far this year. Those helicopter shots of the lush green cliffs and seaside are a marvel in 3D or 2D Blu-ray, and the Highland games and other action scenes provide enough break-the-plane effects to please most 3D lovers. There are a few moments where the action can’t keep up with the 3D and we get a little blur (as when arrows fly), but mostly the 3D involves a continuous depth that makes characters stand out from the backgrounds as they did with the “Toy Story 3” 3D presentation. The MVC/MPEG-4 transfer is a good one, too, with no problems that I noticed. And if you buy this package only having a Blu-ray player, thinking one day you might upgrade to 3D-TV, you’ll still be amazed at the quality. The AVC/MPEG-4 transfer is flawless, and the same depth of field that’s a strength in 3D makes the film feel rich and full-bodied in 2D Blu-ray. Landscapes are lush, colors are bold, black levels are inky, and the level of detail on fur, faces, tree bark—you name it—is a wonder. “Brave” is presented in 2.39:1 widescreen.
The English Dolby TrueHD 7.1 is also impressive—a dynamic soundtrack that isn’t just loud. It’s rich-timbred, with an active sound field that moves the audio effects logically across the room. The zip of an arrow, for example, whooshes from left to right, and the roar of a bear begins at the front and then grows as it moves toward the back speakers. Additional audio options are a Dolby TrueHD 5.1, an English Dolby Digital 5.1, and an English 2.0 Near Field Mix for both the 3D Blu-ray and Blu-ray, with subtitles in English, English SDH, French, and Spanish.
This package includes a 3D Blu-ray, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Copy, and a Blu-ray disc with bonus features.
Disc 1 features the film on Blu-ray 3D. Disc 2 features the film on Blu-ray and the following extras:
Two Pixar short films—the unrelated “La Luna” (which also appears in “Pixar Short Films Collection, Vol. 2”), and “The Legend of Mor’Du, which is title-specific and gives background into the origins of the folkloric creature. For whatever reason, even though both films are presented in HD, “Mor’Du” only has a Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack, while “La Luna” has the full Dolby TrueHD 7.1. Also on Disc 2 are close to an hour of eight short bonus features that show the Pixar crew scouting locations in Scotland, casting the voice talent, designing the costumes and sets, deciding on an opening scene, and taking the characters through several stages of animation. How detailed is it? Even the moss gets explained! Fans of commentary tracks can hear co-directors Mark Andrews and Steve Purcell talking about the film with their story supervisor and editor, examining all aspects in a fair amount of detail. It’s an all-business commentary with very little in the way of entertaining anecdotes or humor, but there’s a wealth of information for serious fans of animation. Finally, on Disc 2, there are four extended scenes that run around three minutes each—one of which is presented in rough animatics.
Disc 3, the Blu-ray bonus feature disc, offers relatively few extras, given the extra disc. Most of the disc space is taken up by promotional pieces that were shown in the U.S., UK, and Asia, which offer no additional insights or information. But the features themselves are don’t-blink brief. There’s a four-minute feature on “The Tapestry,” another on Merida’s horse “Angus,” one about the “Dirty Hairy People” in this time period that challenged animators (a fun one to watch, actually), a “Fallen Warriors” montage that didn’t make the final cut, and a four-minute guide to Scottish phrases called “It is English . . . Sort Of.” So what’s taking up all the disc space? Probably the art galleries, which are divided into five sections: Characters, Color Keys, Development Art, Environments, and Graphics.
While I’m surprised that these shorter features weren’t folded into a picture-in-picture track, I’m also grateful for the opportunity to see them without accoutrements.
“Brave” is the first foray in fairytale storytelling for “Pixar,” and their first contribution to the growing pantheon of Disney princesses. It works so well that we can safely assume that it won’t be the last fairytale coming out of Emeryville. And maybe that’s what Pixar’s biggest future challenge will be: how to stay true to your wildly imaginative roots while partnering with Disney in familiar franchise fairytale territory.