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Disney In Depth: Blu-ray Review: Brave
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Brett Nachman   |  @   |  
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"Brave" Blu-ray cover

Brave
Directed by Mark Andrews, Brenda Chapman
Starring Kelly Macdonald, Emma Thompson, Billy Connolly, Julie Walters, Kevin McKidd, Craig Ferguson, Robbie Coltrane
Walt Disney Home Entertainment
5-Disc Blu-ray | 3-Disc Blu-ray | DVD
Release Date: November 13, 2012

The number 13. It is a bad one, often fraught with misfortune. Sadly that misfortune applies to Pixar’s unlucky 13th feature, Brave, a bold, well-intentioned and genuinely good film with many elements that regretfully do not work in its favor. Fortuitously, though, its Blu-ray release is among the best you can find this holiday season. So bear with me and embark on a Blu-ray review of Brave.

Film

After an intense prologue set in medieval Scotland, where it looks like King Fergus (voiced with gusto by Billy Connolly) will be slain by demon bear Mor’du, we think the film will strike a consistently dark tone. In one sense, yes, Brave heads down an intense path with some accomplished guidance. Yet it also wanders around a trail scattered by silliness and irrelevance. That is perhaps the most consistent issue with Brave, in that it holds a conflicting narrative, never knowing if it wants to be a forceful or relaxed picture.

Merida the archer

Archery is one of Merida’s greatest skills.

Its rich plot follows Merida (voiced by soulful Kelly Macdonald), the princess archetype, who contains the spirit of Rapunzel and selfishness of early Disney heroines. She’s a horseback-riding free spirit who climbs cliffs and engages in archery in her free time. Tired of her mother’s overbearing influence and the unfortunate promise of being married, Merida aims to change her fate. Rather her mother’s fate. Emma Thompson gives maternal authority to poor Queen Elinor, transformed into a bear after consuming a spellbinding cake. This film is constructed in a manner that sets up an intriguing opening about a girl wanting a fresh start, but evolves into a rather-formulaic one where a curse must be broken by the second sunrise. Oh please.

I think my disappointment with Brave exists in how it was marketed, making it appear to be a movie holding an entirely different story. Indisputably I find it pleasing that its trailer did not reveal the storyline – much unlike the rest of Hollywood – but the stunningly alternative turn bothers me. As a devoted Pixar fan I try to see them do no wrong. I attribute Cars 2’s failure in winning my “stamp of approval” to the muddied production and the fact that it was a sequel shaped with little substance. On the other hand, Brave, which faced Cars 2‘s similar challenge in switching directors – in this case from Brenda Chapman to Mark Andrews – had a framework that could have been so much better.

When a movie holds so much potential and then makes a 180 halfway through, you become disenchanted. That is how I feel about the bear aspect. As soon as Elinor emerges from the textile as a beastly creature I experienced shock. I did not see that coming. Now I know I am not alone in feeling that, but this was a turn that I neither expected nor wanted. Even if the film remained centered on its family drama storyline that would have been reasonable, but the standard spell element throws Brave into a run-of-the-mill category that it should not belong in.

Queen Elinor and King Fergus

The ever-mindful Queen Elinor (left) keeps tabs on her more outspoken husband, King Fergus (right).

Yes, the emotion is powerful, even compelling, and I was touched by the mother-daughter bonding scenes as much as the next guy. But the overdrawn sequences of grown men brawling in the castle and chanting their ditties works against the more serious and considerably persuasive main narrative. Furthermore, suddenly removing the Julie Walters-voiced witch, who delivers some of the film’s most fun humor, also hinders the story. Here is a fine “villain,” if you can even call the wise old woman an antagonist, and Brave fails to utilize the character past the halfway mark. Conflicting management of these essential components hampers what could have been an epic tale about the tricky relationship between Merida and Elinor – that is, without the bear conversion.

Despite all these setbacks Brave functions as a well-done feature – just not an “average-quality” Pixar effort. Patrick Doyle’s mesmerizing Celtic orchestration lends the perfect numinous touch to the Scotland-set story. Julie Fowlis performs two exquisite songs for the film, and Mumford & Sons and Birdy’s “Learn Me Right” also hits a beautiful chord. Everything looks wonderful (see “Presentation” for more details) and I genuinely liked the main characters. They are relatable and deep. Brave is designed with such attention to detail and kindness that you only want to root for it, even when muddled with boring moments like when Elinor as the bear attempts to escape the castle. I suppose that serves as a strength, even if certain points are weak. Perhaps the final climax is when Brave reaches its most thrilling point, but unfortunately that arrives somewhat too late.

Bonus Features

Disc 1 offers a broad variety for all types of Blu-ray viewers.

“Short Films” features the Academy Award-nominated “La Luna,” a hypnotic and exquisite short, with some of Michael Giacchino’s most peaceful orchestral work. This magical storytelling of a boy who sweeps the Moon’s “stars” with his father and grandfather just proves Pixar’s gift in using no dialogue, only sounds, in conveying a narrative. “The Legend of Mor’du” serves as the special short film for this Pixar feature, as narrated by Julie Walters’ old witch. Now viewers may have a greater understanding for how the bear Mor’du came to be, but that does not equate to holding a higher appreciation for this rather-boring, though brooding plot. Conceivably this would have worked more effectively as an iPad storybook app, as the visuals and recitation function more along those lines than a seven-minute “short film.”

Lord Dingwall and Lord Macintosh

Lord DIngwall and Lord Macintosh encourage their sons, two of Merida’s potential suitors, to perform well in archery.

“Behind the Scenes” contains a bundle of featurettes.

“Brave Old World” takes viewers on the Pixar crew’s incredibly memorable tour through Scotland in order to realize the environment, whether swimming in the frigid waters or feeling the sinking moss. This quest through the green pastures and rocky precipices engages with every thorough shot. This is no standard filmmakers’ guide, but rather a heartwarming experience.

“Merida & Elinor” allows for examination into the daughter-mother relationship and Merida’s stunning look and feel, more notably designing her complex locks of scarlet hair. Merida’s mom Elinor also receives some extra attention, and the symbolism behind their dresses offers some good depth.

“Bears” concentrates on the research Pixar animators took to capture the realistic nature of these creatures, and the attitudes they inserted into these characters.

“Brawl in the Hall” yields focus on creating the techniques behind the various fistfights and scuffles within the kingdom. The filmmakers sure had a fun time producing the sequences by “rehearsing” and choreographing staged fights.

“Wonder Moss” shows how animators captured the texture and movement of moss by implementing useful mathematics. This feature on such technical elements is more interesting than one would expect.

“Magic” conjures up the connectedness between the supernatural components and environmental elements. The science behind the glowing, fire-like blue wisps adds intrigue.

“Clan Pixar” overviews how the Pixar crew engaged in Scottish-themed activities while working on Brave. Ever wanted to watch people consume and talk about haggis? Here is your opportunity. Pixar people also enjoyed Kilt Fridays. They really internalized all aspects of the wild lifestyle.

“Once Upon a Scene” looks at how each moment of the movie was crafted in different ways, such as the opening. Entertaining storyboard sequences demonstrate alternative takes on Brave’s opening. Other scenes are also shown. Many of them could have increased the tension and elevated the humor.

“Extended Scenes” carry four, each with an intro by director Mark Andrews: “Meet The Lords;” “Triplets’ Distraction;” “The Ruins;” and “Blockade.” I appreciate how the “scissors” icon indicates what moments were deleted from the movie, as well as Andrews’ understandable explanations for why they cut them out. I feel the bits’ exclusions did not compromise the film whatsoever.

“Audio Commentary” includes observations from director Mark Andrews, co-director Steve Purcell, story supervisor Brian Larsen and editor Nick Smith. This commentary fails to spin the commentary formula, but what these four achieve is offering insight into every topic imaginable. I felt understanding more about the movie made me greater value Brave, even if the film suffers from disjointed pacing and plot.

Bear cubs

Merida’s triplet brothers also transform into bears, albeit cute little cubs.

Disc 2 carries a handful of additional bonus features that delve into more of the technical tidbits.

“Fergus & Mor’Du: An Alternate Opening” starts with director Mark Andrews sharing background on the cut introduction. The animation here ranges from some storyboarding to rough CGI work. It is apparent why the brief two-minute prologue was deleted, as it lacks necessary context.

“Fallen Warriors” shows a series of shots – most almost completely animated – that were cut from the film.

“Dirty Hairy People” shows animators attempting to translate real-life Scotland into the characters’ appearance and personalities. I love how they threw mud into individuals’ faces as reference for animation. Pixar folks also discuss everything from kilts to teeth grime, essentially capturing the Scottish culture.

“It Is English… Sort Of” expresses how the Brave voice artists turned regular phrases into Scottish terminology. Kevin McKidd used his non-understandable home dialect for Young MacGuffin. This was very funny.

“Angus” takes a closer look at Merida’s loyal Clydesdale. The animators hoped to capture the motions and structure of this type of horse into Angus’ actions and appearance. Most interesting, to see Angus wagging his tail.

“The Tapestry” details the construction of Brave’s prominently-detailed textile. For practice, the artists ripped real textures. Surprisingly, analyzing the designing of threads makes for an interesting peek.

“Promotional pieces” holds a series of trailers – some international – and several other marketing samples to encourage viewers to check out Brave.

My favorite piece, “Feast Yer Eyes! Montage,” shows amusing little bits of animation. The characters sure like to play with the “camera.” Whether they were successful or not in drawing moviegoers is up for debate.

“Art Gallery” allows viewers to check out a wide array of images from an interactive display. As spectacular as the artwork looks, the slow loading time from one display to the next contributes to much griping.

While I think it would have been easier to contain nearly all of the bonus material on one disc, I was quite impressed by Brave‘s amount and pretty consistent value of bonus material. Though the short running time for each of the bonus features on the second disc remains disappointing and could have been improved by a “play all” function, the quantity makes up for that.

Presentation

Merida fights to protect her mother

Merida is one tough princess, demonstrating her sword-fighting prowess.

Suffice it to say this is a fantastic looking and sounding film. Pixar films always look terrific in their Blu-ray transfers, and the Brave experience is one of their most brilliant ones. Considering that not one of their films fall under the “excellent” category, that is high praise. Pixar invested so much effort into capturing the feel of Scotland, both visually and acoustically, and how wonderfully did they manage to encompass that vibe. Among the factors that stood out to me were the forestry lighting, rain and flowing hair. In terms of audio, the sound ranges from clear whispering to pompous roaring, according to the scene context, of course. Everything is coherent. I cannot give enough praise to Brave’s presentation!

Film: B
Bonus Features: A-
Presentation A+

Overall Grade: A-

As Mark Andrews notes in the commentary, “Brave is the darkest film Pixar has done.” Thus this is not ideal for younger audiences, but unfortunately, older viewers might experience displeasure over the clumsy plot and unnecessary humor. Pixar has always managed to reach all audiences with their films, and Brave’s trouble in capturing the right tone for all types of viewers contributes to its biggest problem. There is a lot to love about Brave, from its leading characters to its stunning visual design, but story remains partially problematic. Without a doubt Brave is worth purchasing on Blu-ray, most reasonably for its bonus features. Just watch the film with cautious expectations. It’s no Pixar classic, merely a stumble in their canon, yet at least not a collision like Cars 2. What a shining endorsement.

This is Brett Nachman, signing off. Return back next week for another edition of Disney In Depth. Catch alerts for upcoming editions of the column by following me on Twitter. Have a good week!

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