Pixar makes a pretty pretty entertaining princess
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 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.
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.
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.
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