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Pixar comes through in the clutch — God bless ‘em

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Posted: Friday, June 29, 2012 7:50 am

I typically preface reviews of Pixar films with a disclaimer stating that, while I admire their consistently engaging and often groundbreaking work, I do not share the majority opinion that they are the end-all and be-all of contemporary animated entertainment.

It’s unfortunate that I must play the role of curmudgeon to temper expectations, but you know I speak the truth. They have had their share of masterstrokes (the “Toy Story” trilogy, “Finding Nemo” and “Up” all qualify as truly great films), but they’ve also had some borderline misfires (“Cars” and “Cars 2,” anyone?), and I’ve always been wary of the idea that a new Pixar release is cause for immediate and unbridled celebration.

But now the tables are turned. Everywhere I go, it seems that somebody has a fresh new criticism to level against “Brave,” Pixar’s first attempt at an old-fashioned fairy tale, and their first feature with a female lead. I think it’s a nice change of pace for the studio, and in theme and tone it harkens back to the kind of animated movies Disney used to release before things went bad in the late ‘90s. It’s a throwback in many ways, but in other ways it represents a giant leap forward for the studio, particularly in terms of visual sophistication (Pixar reportedly overhauled their entire animation process to make the world depicted in “Brave” come to life, and their undoubtedly painstaking efforts definitely show). This is good stuff, and overall is probably the most impressive of Pixar’s second-tier releases (“The Incredibles,” “WALL*E,” etc.).

But don’t bother trying to convince the critics, who have given “Brave” a relatively savage and, in my view, totally inexplicable beating. They say some key plot developments — most notably the introduction of animorphism in the second act — are trite and unnecessary, and the film is simply a polished-looking but emotionally stunted attempt to cash in on the well-worn but resurging “Disney princess” subgenre. The film has been given a lukewarm recommendation by a majority of published critics, but many others have labeled it as Pixar’s first true misfire, and even its defenders seem half-hearted at best. But don’t be fooled by the overly cynical (and possibly sexist) nay-sayers — “Brave” represents Pixar at its best (or close to it, anyway), and is surely one of the most rewarding times you’ll have at the movies this summer.

The film tells the admittedly familiar but nonetheless rousing story of Princess Merida (voiced by the wonderful Kelly Macdonald, following the exit of the less-than-wonderful Reese Witherspoon), the daughter of a Scottish clan leader who, as she becomes older, becomes increasingly frustrated by the behavioral expectations forced upon her by her prim and proper mother, Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson). Instead of spending her time learning the kingdom’s history and practicing etiquette and whatever other nonsense princesses are expected to do, Merida would much rather be roaming the countryside on her faithful steed, honing her archery skills and generally being a free woman. When her parents arrange a contest to determine which of the neighboring clans’ princes she will marry, Merida sees it as the last straw, and enlists the help of a witch (Julie Walters) to “change” her mother’s nature. The spell has unintended consequences, and as a result both Merida and her mother are forced to confront their issues with each other and redefine the terms of their strained relationship.

This may sound every bit as trite and cloying as the film’s critics are saying, but the story and characters are rendered in such a heartfelt manner that such criticisms become moot. Much of the film’s success can be attributed to the talented voice cast, which also includes Billy Connelly as Merida’s affable father, and Craig Ferguson and Robbie Coltrane as two of the clan leaders. But the film belongs to Macdonald (who has been the object of my affection for close to 20 years but is only now seeing a breakthrough thanks to her lauded work on HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire”), who imbues her performance with a deft mix of feminine charm and masculine determination. She’s a heroine worth rooting for, and in an industry that offers so few quality roles for women — and in a Pixar universe that seems disproportionately geared toward the boys in the audience — that’s something to appreciate.

Pixar’s output in the past few years (“Cars 2” notwithstanding) has caused me to soften my stance on the studio, and despite the rampant and unfair criticisms, “Brave” — with its lush and vibrant visuals, emotionally affecting story and stellar voice work — is certainly cause to soften my stance even more. So ignore the haters, surrender to the old-school Disney vibe, and enjoy what may be one of the few bright spots of the summer.

Jason Wallis is a News-Sentinel copy editor. He can be reached at jasonwallis@comcast.net.

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