In 10 Words or Less
Pixar makes a pretty pretty entertaining princess
Loves: Pixar, animation, my daughter
Likes: Brave, a Scottish accent
Dislikes: Mother/daughter drama, how emotional movies make me since having a child
Hates: Discs devoted to digital copies
We don't get to the movies as a family too often, but the release of a Pixar film is a guaranteed trip to the theater. Such was the case when the studio released Brave, however this time, my daughter was far more excited about the movie. And now, she's got a Brave backpack and Brave dolls and for Halloween, she sported a bright red mop of curls as she trick-or-treated. She's been into Disney princesses before, mostly Tangled's Rapunzel, due to their shared blond hair, but Brave's Scottish princess Merida struck a special chord with her, a common occurrence since Pixar decided to release a film starring a female lead. Merida is the first Disney princess who stands on her own and doesn't need help from a prince, which makes her more of a heroine than anyone in a tiara who's come before.
Daughter of King Fergus (Billy Connolly) and Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson), Merida (Kelly McDonald) chafes against her role as a princess, preferring archery and bounding through the forest on her steed Angus to the lessons in perfection her mother forces upon her. Like almost any teen girl, she has an antagonistic relationship with her mom, but her rebellious spirit, desire for freedom and her struggles with the expectations that she'll marry into a royal arrangement add another layer to their strife. Seeking a solution, she seeks the help of a witch who can help change the fate that lays before her. However, as is often the case with such arrangements, things don't work out as planned, which creates some intense problems for the family, and Merida has to try and fix it.
Mother/daughter drama isn't traditional animated family-film fare (especially since most Disney movies get moms out of the picture pretty quickly) but Brave manages to work it well, so it becomes a universal, if slightly emotionally-manipulative story of dealing with your parents' expectations, before it mixes in high-energy action and tremendously fun comedy to become your traditionally well-rounded Pixar flick. The interplay between Merida and her curse-afflicted mom is alternatingly hilarious and touching, while the rest of the film is loaded with classic comedy, especially of the silent type, epitomized by Merida's wordless triplet brothers' escapades (including a wondrously funny puppet chicken) and the brilliant work the animators did on the cursed Queen's pantomime performance.
Meanwhile her father's bull-headed efforts to help his daughter result in some terrifically entertaining fights, some of the comedic variety, while others near the end of the film are simply adrenaline-pumping blow-outs. Throughout there are some genuine thrills as well, largely thanks to a legendary demon bear, whose story is intertwined with Merida's family, and though for some younger ones it might get a bit too scary, the pacing of action and story over the film's brisk 93 minutes is just about perfect.
Though story is usually paramount in Pixar's films, they are just as, if not more well-known for the technical accomplishments in their animation, and Brave is no exception, and it may just be the best-looking Pixar movie yet. Recreating the beauty of bonnie green Scotland already put them ahead in the beauty game, but it's the little things that out the film over the top, like the amazing work that went into Merida's iconic hair, the astounding woven fabrics and the unbelievable bear animation the movie boasts, resulting in some of the most like-life animated animals ever seen on-screen. Of course, having an incredible authentically-Scottish cast, led by the quite capable and quite enthusiastic Mark (One Man Band) Andrews (who stepped in when original director Brenda Chapman was removed from the project) doesn't hurt in the least.
The Ultimate Collector's Edition of Brave arrives in a five-disc set, with the film on one Blu-Ray, a second Blu-Ray of extras, a 3-D Blu-Ray of the film, a DVD of the film and a DVD with a digital copy of the film, which are packed in a thicker-than-average Blu-Ray keepcase with two dual-hubbed trays. The case is packaged in a holofoil-embossed slipcover with a decent 3D lenticular front-piece (that's marred by a pair of stickers. Why they continue to put expiring digital copies on a separate disc (which by the way is illegible thanks to putting white text on a hideous yellow background) is beyond me.
The Blu-Rays feature gorgeously simple and clean menus, with options to watch the film, select scenes, adjust the set-up and check out the extras. For both versions of the film, audio options include English Dolby TrueHD 7.1, Dolby TrueHD 5.1, Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby 2.0 Near-Field and Dolby Digitsl DVS 2.0, French Dolby Digital Plus 7.1 and Dolby Digital 5.1 and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1, while subtitles are available in English SDH, French and Spanish.
The 1080p, AVC-encoded transfer (MVC-encoded on the 3D version) is exactly the kind of eye-candy you want, desire and believe is your birthright when it comes to a Pixar film on Blu-Ray. From the start, the gorgeous greens of Merida's homeland fill the screen with vivid color and rich detail, and nothing that follows is any less impressive, maintaining appropriate hues and skintones, while the level of fine detail is equally grand, with the deep pile of curls that make up Merida's hair clearly delineated, along with all the wonder of the natural world that fills out her kingdom. Even when, later in the film, things get a bit dark, the definition keeps everything clearly visible, aided by excellent black levels. If you can find an issue with this presentation, you're not enjoying the movie enough and you're doomed to a sad, lonely life of artifact-spotting. In 3D, the movie suffers no slights, keeping the same bright visuals and sharp details, deftly avoiding the pitfalls so many 3D films fall prey to. Part of that is howe Brave uses 3D as an enhancement, rather than a raison d'etre, so you're getting less of those lazy in-your-face! effects and more of a focus on creating added depth (especially during the film's several key action scenes.) My rule of thumb tends to be, if you forget you're wearing glasses, the 3D is well-done, and that was the case with Brave.
Nothing was left in reserve with this release, and the Dolby TrueHD 7.1 audio track is a key example. For those of you with a now-standard 5.1 set-up, you're going to have a good time thanks to an energetic and engaged mix, but the additional two channels give the sound designers more playground to explore, and the result is a track that supports clear and clean center-channel dialogue with a whirling dervish of surround sound that doesn't neglect more subtle, delicate touches (the whispering coos of the Will o' the Wisps are haunting) while blowing the doors off when appropriate, like during the big brawls and the ursine moments. With the LFE powering the feel of the track with heavy, immediate force, the rear and side speakers get to have some fun, with bouncy directional effects and impressively distinct and strong pans around the soundfield. All added up, it truly helps to put you right in the middle of the action.
There's quite a wealth of extras in this set, and they are spread over two Blu-Ray discs, starting with an audio commentary featuring Andrews, co-director Steve Purcell, story supervisor Brian Larson and editor Nick Smith. This is a pretty straight-forward collection of info about the making of the movie, however Andrews' enthusiasm for the film keeps it entertaining, and they cover a lot of detail about the development of the story and plenty of notes about the production of the animation. It would have been interesting to hear more about the troubles during production (Chapman, the original director, is only mentioned briefly twice) but they do manage to cram in a lot of background and talk some about the concepts that changed or were left behind.
Though Chapman's role is M.I.A. in the commentary, Pixar's wall-to-wall coverage of their production makes sure she's a part of the extras, especially in "Brave Old World," a 12:35 look at the filmmakers' research trip to Scotland. Pixar is known for letting their creative team soak in their subject matter via research trips, and this film was no different, as seen in this featurette which shows the team collecting visual references and learning more about Scottish culture. That education was transferred to the company's unique work culture, as seen in the 4:46 "Clan Pixar," where Scottish traditions like haggis were worked into the office.
There's a tremendous focus on the behind-the-scenes teams on Pixar's special features, like in "Bears" (6:10), which explores the development of the look and feel of the movie's amazing bears via zoo research and great internal discussion, and "Angus" (3:25) a look at the animation of Merida's horse, including what he represents in the film, how to depict emotion without becoming cartoony and the unique challenges of animating a Clydesdale. The 5:29 "Brawl in the Hall," is a piece on the theory and practice of good fight scenes, including choreography footage, while "Wonder Moss" (2:45), an explanation of how they used math to create the lush greens of Brave, a scientific breakdown of interest to all of Nate Silver's fans new and old.
It's amazing to see how Pixar will develop new software to meet new challenges, as seen in "The Tapestry" (3:56), where they created a new way to weave digital fabric, so individual threads can be animated, taking into account the need to be able to scale and show tears. And whike it may not be nearly as high-tech, "Dirty, Hairy People" (3:33) might be the most interesting of all though, as it covers the rustic look of Scotland and its inhabitants in the movie, as teeth, hair, fabrics and mud were workshopped. Working at Pixar seems like fun until you're on the receiving end of a mud splatter test.
In addition to technology and animation, story and characters are important, and there are several featurettes focusing on this area. Chapman is a big part of "Merida and Elinor" (8;24) because the characters were based on her and her daughter. This featurette covers the inspiration, as well as the actors who give them voice. There's more about the voice actors in "It is English...Sort of" (3:50), a peek at the famous folks behind the accents, what they brought to the script during recording and some of the bad attempts at a Scottish accent the Pixar folks managed. The story's roots in fairy tales, including the origins of the Will O the Wisps and the attempts to keep the magic grounded in reality, are covered in the simply-named "Magic" (7:06).
Perhaps a result of the changes in the diurector's chair, Brave featured an unusually large number of scene changes and deleted scenes, which are widely chronicled in the extras, starting with "Fergus and Mor'du: An Alternate Opening" (2:40), introduced by Andrews. A mix of boards, renders and finished animation, this snow-bound fight between Merida's dad and the demon bear originally opened the film, a decision explained by Andrews. He's also around for the 2:08 "Fallen Warriors," a reel of clips that made it all the way to final animation before being cut, and are shared here due to the amount of work that went into them. An extended piece about deleted scenes is included in the 7:47 "Once Upon a Scene," which is fascinating, as they are mostly animatics with descriptions of what they were intended to do, often with explanations for why they were cut. The care about educating and informing film fans about the development of this film is obvious, especially in the four "Extended Scenes," over twelve minutes of clips that include intros or outros from Andrews, and on-screen indicators for the cut moments, which show how precise editing decision can be.
The extras continue with a selection of eight promotional pieces. Apparently these were released in connection to the film's premiere, though outside of the three trailers (from the U.S., U.K. and Japan) it's not clear where they were shown. Two of them are particularly enjoyable, as the Feast Yer Eyes! montage is fun and energetic, while "Flying Guts" Theater" is quite funny, featuring the triplets acting out Fergus and Elinor's love story. The other three, with the clan leaders presenting their relics, an enthusiastic history lesson with Fergus and Merida and an archery lesson with the triplets, were just OK. All together, they run around 12 minutes long.
There's also a five-section art gallery, which may be the finest home video slideshow I've seen. Split between characters (178 pieces), color keys (95), development art (96), environments (65) and graphics (37), you can view them three different ways, and can rate and mark them as favorites. There's a bunch of beautiful imagery in here, but the reason it's so good is because this art is the stuff used while the film was made, with tons of detail and instructions for the animators, including URLs on Pixar's servers where assets are kept (no, they don't work (at least not without VPN access to Pixar's network)), while some of the material has the film's original logo when it was called The Bear and the Bow. For animation geeks, it's a fantastic inside view.
In addition to the supplementals for the film, two shorts are included, La Luna, the original short that was shown before Brave, and a new short The Legend of Mor'du. La Luna is a beautiful little fable about three generations of maintenance workers who clean up stars on the moon. It's beyond adorable and the animation on the stars is gorgeous. There's not a tremendously engaging story, but it's all about the feeling the movie gives you. The Legend of Mor'du, which uses limited animation that's a bit like a motion comic, tells an extended version of the tale of the four brothers from Brave, and does so in an extremely artistic and impactful way. Young viewers who enjoy Brave may not feel the same way about The Legend of Mor'du, a darker take on the bear's origins.
Also included in the package is a DVD of the film, which includes La Luna and The Legend of Mor'du, as well as the audio commentary, along with a disc holding a digital copy of the film.
The Bottom Line
For members of the He-Man Woman Haters Club, Brave might represent too much of a shift in lead-character gender to embrace, and I'll certainly admit the princess didn't speak directly to me, but like almost every Pixar product, in the end, it's all about the story, the characters, the emotion and the artistry, and on all four points, the film has to be considered a grand success, and an epic one at that if you happen to lack a Y chromosome or have an emotional attachment to someone with two Xs. The package, though inflated by all the non-Blu-Ray discs, couldn't be more informative about the production (minus the whole director swap thing) and the level of quality is bang-on. After a ho-hum home video release for Cars 2, Pixar seems to be back on track.
Francis Rizzo III is a native Long Islander, where he works in academia. In his spare time, he enjoys watching hockey, writing and spending time with his wife, daughter and puppy.Check out 1106 - A Moment in Fictional Time or follow him on Twitter
*The Reviewer's Bias section is an attempt to help readers use the review to its best effect. By knowing where the reviewer's biases lie on the film's subject matter, one can read the review with the right mindset.