Brave and Pixar’s Expectations Problem

Pixar has gotten into the (lucrative) Disney Princess business with their latest animated feature Brave. The successful animation studio has been getting a lot of press for this decision as Merida, the fiery-headed protagonist, is Pixar’s very first female lead. The studio has brought us plenty of strong female characters in the past (Dory the fish, Elastigirl, EVE), but the Kelly Macdonald-voiced archer is the first to come doll-ready. It is also the studio’s first entry into the fairy tale genre that their parent company began mastering nearly 8 decades ago with Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.

Brave is also the studio’s follow-up to what is more-or-less accepted to be the studio’s worst movie, the sputtered-out sequel Cars 2. After that critical flop, Pixar fans like myself were hoping that Brave would prove to be a true return-to-form for the studio that gave us the 1-2-3-4 punch of Ratatouille, Wall-E, Up, and Toy Story 3. Nothing but the near-perfection of that streak of movies (which could be considered much longer, depending on your feelings on the original Cars), would be considered up to the studio’s standard. Brave isn’t as good those films, but what is? Instead, Brave is a modestly scaled and gorgeously animated feature film that might ask us to readjust our standards of what we should realistically expect from what is still film-for-film the most consistent movie brand.

The film centers on a Scottish princess defying her mother’s insistence of being, well, princess-like. This includes choosing a husband to help prevent war among neighboring clans. Magic gets involved in a way I won’t give away here, but the film follows a lot of the same moralizing and familial reconciliation plot-points that we come to expect from both fairy tales and Pixar’s previous efforts. Merida is a strong, likable character (though a think-piece could be written, by someone more versed in gender studies than I am, about how it seems the easiest way to make an animated female character “strong” is to give them tomboyish/male characteristics. See also: Toy Story’s Jesse and Up’s Ellie) and the movie finds humor in situational comedy (and some unfortunate body humor) instead of winking pop culture references. It may not offer the emotional punch-to-the-gut that Pixar’s best films do, but it offers as many thrills and laughs as most fairy tale animated adventures in the Disney stable.

But that’s the thing--if the film was released by Disney Animation Studios, the studio that brought us Tangled and The Princess and the Frog, there wouldn’t be a conversation about how the film “stacks up.” Instead, some critics are questioning why the story is so traditional (isn’t that the point of fairy tales?) and some bemoaning that the film plays it too “safe.” Surveying other upcoming and current animated releases makes me wonder how truly “safe” Pixar is playing it. Already this Summer we’ve gotten the third Madagascar film and later this year we’ll get the fourth Ice Age Movie and a Despicable Me sequel. Besides being sequels, these cartoons aspire to be nothing more than joke-delivery machines fueled by bright colors and goofy voices. There is nothing particularly wrong with that, considering the audience of these movies are children and families, but it makes me appreciate Pixar all the more for being ambitious enough to try to tell good stories that are at least sliiightly more complex than ‘believe in yourself!’ (also for continuing to advance animation on the technical level--look at Merida’s hair!).

Am I afraid Pixar will never make a film as good as Wall-E or Up again? Of course not.

Some stories rumored to be in development--a boy and his dinosaur tale and a Pete Docter directed movie set in the brain of a young girl--sound like the kind of concepts Pixar is known to knock out of the park. I'm not 100% confident that they’re going to reach those heights with a Monsters Inc prequel...but I'll see it opening weekend and find out.

 Jacob Rosdail is a Documentary Filmmaker and Co-Founder of FWOAC