|Print | Back||July 3, 2012|
Shark Bite TheatreBrave: Concentrated Quality
by Andrew E. Lindsay
I remember as a kid when some friends of my parents came over to the house one evening to talk about a really exciting business opportunity. You know, Amway. I remember it mostly because I wandered downstairs in time to miss all the flip-charts and pep-talks, but still in time to see the exciting product demonstrations.
It might not seem as though soap is something that you could get really excited about, but if that's what you think, then you've probably never sat through an Amway presentation. I have no recollection whether my folks signed up, but what I do remember was being fascinated by the demonstration of the various soap selection concentrates, and in particular how the Amway shill explained that certain brand-name products used lots of fillers in their soap (like crushed up egg shells and such) to give the powder more volume but that did nothing to make them better clean your soiled stuff.
That kinda stuck with me over the years, this idea that companies would put things in their products to make them seem better without actually making them better. And I started noticing that manufacturers also did this with the packaging itself, offering up their teeny-tiny whatever in a bag or box nine times the size of the actual thing. If you've ever opened up a huge, brightly-colored box of your favorite sugar-soaked cereal and then torn open the inner bag to discover that half the box was filled with air, then you know what I'm talking about.
I've also come to realize that movie-makers are often guilty of the same chintzy behavior. Have you ever been suckered into watching a movie because the trailer was so terribly exciting, what with things blowing up all over the place and the dialogue oozing with really funny lines, only to find that you had already seen in the trailer everything worth seeing in the actual film? It's become a classic Hollywood bait-and-switch technique that leaves many a moviegoer feeling shortchanged and ultimately unsatisfied.
Sometimes this happens because the people who make the trailers are actually better at telling the story than the people who made the movie, and they skillfully strip away all the unnecessary stuff and are left with a feature-length film that is now two minutes in length. Boom. Watch the trailer, skip the movie, go bowling.
The problem is, it's often very difficult to tell if you're watching one of those trailers, or if you're watching the other, rarer kind, that just whets your appetite for the real meal: a well-crafted, well-written cinematic feast.
Most studios produce a wide variety of movies, quality-wise. They've got the aforementioned films, which are best watched only as trailers; they've got a number of decent films that will find a particular audience, and every once in a blue blockbuster moon, they hit one out of the park. Most of the time, however, they're dancing a jig in their big corner offices if they can make more at the box office than they shelled out to make the movie in the first place.
And this is what makes Pixar the most rare of all box office birds: the only kind of movie they appear to be capable of making is an unmitigated, out-of-this-world, mega-huge, record-breaking, insanely profitable, hit.
Now, you can certainly argue with me if you want about your personal feelings or preferences when it comes to Pixar. Maybe every single movie they've made isn't on your favorites list. Maybe you don't have all their films on DVD (and a few leftover on VHS, as well). Maybe you haven't seen every movie they've ever made, twice. But, then, you would be one of about 12 people world-wide who felt that way.
So you can argue with me all you want, but you can't argue with the numbers. And the numbers reveal a string of successes most studio bosses would sell their grandmother's house to achieve (with grandma still in it). Since their very first release of Toy Story in 1992, the lowest grossing film they've produced has been Toy Story in 1992, made for a measly $30 million and raking in nearly $362 million. Along the way, they've made a few other titles you might've seen (unless you've been away on, say, Neptune): A Bug's Life, Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Cars, and several others. Toy Story 3 saw the production budget jump to $200 million, but that turned out to be chump change when worldwide receipts tallied over a billion dollars. With a "B" billion.
Interestingly, there have been a few Pixar films over the years that had the reverse bait-and-switch effect than what I previously discussed. That is to say that I watched the trailer and had almost no interest in seeing the movie because it just didn't seem that interesting. But then I watched it anyway and was completely in love.
So now I've gotten to the point with Pixar that it doesn't really matter how I feel about the trailer or even if I watch the trailer at all. I'm going to watch it and I expect it to be good. What I can't anticipate is how they're going to surprise me or how they will move me, but I know the ride is going to be worth it.
Toy Story 3 and Up were both enormously entertaining and filled to overflowing with hilarious moments. But there were also moments so powerfully human that I was moved to tears, even on subsequent viewings. Somehow, I completely forgot I was watching a cartoon, and not because the animation was so mind-blowingly good (which it is) but because the story itself was so real. Because the characters were so endearing and their actions so honest that I could not stop myself from being drawn into their world. The magical animation and the side-splitting humor and the heart-wrenching sadness all spilled together on an emotion-filled canvas that gave me no choice but to suspend all disbelief and become a part of the story.
I could relate to the characters because they were real, notwithstanding they were toys or cars or dogs or fish or whatever.
So, at this point, it should come as no surprise that I'm offering up a ringing endorsement of Pixar's latest, Brave. Animation or no, this movie is flat-out good. OK, great. It's a period piece, set in the highlands of Scotland a few hundred years ago, and centers on Merida, the headstrong teenage daughter of King Fergus and Queen Elinor. Merida also has three wee triplet brothers with a penchant for mischief-making.
Merida is voiced by Kelly Macdonald, whose voice I find so lilting and entrancing that I would pay good money just to listen to her reading phone books or the classifieds or ticket stubs. King Fergus is vocalized by the always funny Billy Connolly, and Elinor's voice is provided by the ever-graceful Emma Thompson.
Merida has been raised with poise by her mother to be a princess, but she has also been taught by her warrior king father how to handle a bow, how to ride a horse, and how to take care of herself. The conflict arises when the motley clans of the land come together for an age-old custom of unification that involves, to Merida's dismay, the marrying off of the princess to one of the first-born of the neighboring clans. This happens through a show of skill and strength, with the victor claiming Merida's hand in marriage.
Merida, however, has other plans, and bests all the would-be beaus in the archery contest, upsetting the proverbial applecart and her mother in the process. As is to be expected, differing expectations on the part of parent and child, mixed with anger and pride, lead to some bad decisions. Decisions, good or bad, always have consequences, and Merida and her mother spend much of the movie dealing with said consequences before everyone in their family and the kingdom at large are forced to face some painful realities.
If you've ever been a teenager or the parent of a teenager or both, you will undoubtedly recognize the real challenges and frustrations that are part and parcel of that precarious point in the evolution of a person as he metamorphoses from child to adult. Millions have successfully navigated the path, yet it is no less gut-retching to re-live it vicariously from a spectator's vantage point.
Kilts and arrows and bears and clans aside, Merida's story is not that different from your story or my story. Growing up is hard business. Raising a family is herculean. Neither kids nor parents have anything like a manual or a script to work from. Even the best families who love each other and protect each other and are devoted to each other have problems. There's nothing that prepares you for the inexplicable dichotomy of being completely in love with someone who shares your genetic code and wanting to beat him until he realizes how much you love him and want to take care of him.
Brave is a beautifully illustrated example of how good and loving families can find themselves in an impossibly hard situation because parents and children both make bad decisions, and not because they're bad people and not because they don't care about the other. Nevertheless, every choice has consequences, and you don't get to pick your consequences independent of your actions.
Brave is also a fun movie, filled with action and excitement and very funny characters (like Craig Ferguson's Lord Macintosh, a tip-of-the-hat to Pixar co-founder Steve Jobs). It also has a surprising amount of nudity, but I don't think it's going to make anybody get up and leave the theater. The animated bare butts are brief (er, de-briefed?) and very funny, so don't get too worked up. There are a few scary moments, as well, which involve fighting some big, mean bears.
When I went, the theater was full, and more than half the audience was little children. They laughed a lot, usually with their parents laughing right along with them, so the funniness was generous and multi-generational in its appeal. No one seemed to be scared enough at any point to leave the theater, except perhaps the 40-something lady behind me who had the strange habit of talking out loud to Merida during a rather suspenseful moment in the movie, warning her about the dangers she was unknowingly walking into.
So go watch Brave. Take your kids, take your grandkids, take your mom and dad. This is a movie that delivers in spades what most movies promise but rarely accomplish. Like other Pixar films, you will quickly forget that you are watching a cartoon, lost in a story that feels real because it is honest and well-crafted. And because there are no fillers, no fluff, and no over-hyped packaging, this promises to be more fun than a multi-level marketing soap demonstration. Brave is a story for families about families, and it's also good, clean fun.
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