You probably think I’m talking about Brave, the latest effort from the Emeryville, Calif.-based animation studios, but I’m actually referring to La Luna, the Oscar-nominated short that precedes it. The tale of three generations of celestial janitors whose job it is to sweep falling stars off the moon’s surface is an utter delight, and gets moviegoers primed for what many of them hope is the title that would end this summer’s extended losing streak at the multiplex. I was glad to count myself among them, at least until the main feature got underway.
Brave is a disappointment, a spry, fleet-footed 3D adventure that takes a detour into high-concept oblivion and then digs itself deeper into the ditch by softening the edges of its morally thorny subject matter. The most frustrating part is that the first 45 minutes of this Disney release, one of two new releases I’m reviewing this week, are reasonably entertaining, even if they don’t quite meet the standards the company has set ever since it blasted onto screens with Toy Story back in 1995. I think it’s time for some tough love, Pixar folks: You have fallen asleep at the wheel.
Propelled by a breakneck pace and razor-sharp editing, Brave gets off to a rousing start. In DunBroch, a medieval kingdom in the Scottish highlands, benevolent ruler Fergus (Billy Connolly’s jolly brogue) gives his auburn-haired first-born Merida (Peigi Barker) her first bow and arrows. Her mother Elinor (Emma Thompson) voices her disapproval; a lady-in-training should not be concerned with such male-oriented endeavors. Grade school-aged Merida tentatively slings back the first arrow and misses the board altogether. How adorable. Then a wild bear storms into the scene, and the king shields his daughter.
Fast forward several years, and Fergus is still his jovial, kindhearted self, minus a leg. Merida (now voiced by Boardwalk Empire’s Kelly Macdonald) has grown into a fiercely independent young woman, one who can’t possibly conceive going through with the betrothal tournament her parents have planned for her. Elinor tries to reason with her: Leaders from three other provinces are expected to bring their sons to vie for her hand, so only the crème de la crème will emerge victorious. Merida is having none of it, and like many adolescents before and after her, she rebels.
A red flag comes up in my mind. (It’s fire-engine red, and not to be confused with our heroine’s frizzy locks.) Up to this point, directors Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman have worked overtime to establish Merida’s headstrong credentials, but other than strong riding skills and a gift for perfect aim, there’s not much to the newest entry in a long line of Disney princesses in the personality department. Snow White had her obsession with housekeeping and dog-whistle pipes, Cinderella displayed kindness toward mice, and even Aurora got to show off her enviable waltzing prowess before taking her extended nap. What makes Merida so special? Why should we care about a back-talking sourpuss who has been given the run of the land and is now asked to do her part to help keep the kingdom afloat, maybe prevent a war?
It turns out that Merida’s by-the-numbers character traits are the least of Brave’s problems. I’m sure the film’s title is not meant to be ironic, but this lighthearted yarn lacks the courage to delve into some pretty dark places. Deep in the forest following a heated argument with her mom, Merida comes upon a cabin inhabited by an opportunistic witch right out of a Hayao Miyazaki movie. (Not a tree hugger, she insists, just a “humble woodcarver.”) Julie Walters does what she can with the thinly written role, but this enchantress is more plot device than fully fleshed supporting player. The Disney formula is only as good as the details you add to it, but Andrews and Chapman are too busy hitting their story beats to create a compelling universe around a lead character that’s far from exceptional. Theirs is a brisk coming-of-age story that fails to leave much of an impression. Everything falls into place with alarming predictability.
And then there’s that plot twist at the halfway mark, an incident which, I’m sensing, is the filmmakers’ idea of an ace in the hole. Whether you enjoy Brave more than I did will depend very strongly on how you respond to this “creative” decision. My reaction was immediate, and quite visceral: I felt it derailed the entire film. (Hint: What happens is somewhat reminiscent of a live-action Disney comedy that the studio remade several years ago. It samples other animated features as well, much to its detriment.) This movie has been hijacked, taken hostage by an idiotic turn of events that leaves the door open to all kinds of unsettling possibilities. But Brave is never allowed to bear its fangs.
“Our stories are not yet legends,” a character observes late in the movie. No, dear, they’re a string of clichés, and they keep Brave from embracing its inner beast. Step up your game, Pixar, because this filmmaking-by-committee downward spiral you’re on does not lead to a happy ending.
In terms of thwarted expectations, it’s been a topsy-turvy week for major studio releases. Whereas Pixar’s highly anticipated foray into Disney princess territory leaves much to be desired, the junky genre mashup from Wanted director Timur Bekmambetov delivers the bloody goods with brio and a civic-minded sense of right and wrong. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter might not be the brightest bulb in the current movie landscape, all right, but it’s been made with so much conviction that I couldn’t help becoming immersed in its alternate reality.
Author Seth Grahame-Smith, who adapted his bestseller, as well as Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows, for the screen, asks two simple fanboy questions: What if our 16th president moonlighted as a vigilante who took out the undead? And what if the Civil War was also fought to prevent bloodsuckers from ruling this country? It’s a point of departure that gives Bekmambetov free rein to indulge in his CGI-heavy brand of over-the-top mayhem. What’s invigorating about AL:VH is that the Russian filmmaker is, for the most part, able to keep his penchant for orchestrated chaos in check, which enables him to trace Lincoln’s rise from poor country boy to leader of the free world with old-fashioned storytelling verve. (It sometimes recalls John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln, only with beheadings and slo-mo fight moves.)
Bekmambetov clutters the screen with one outlandish visual after another. An eye-popping sequence depicting Lincoln chasing after a vampire in the middle of a horse stampede brims over with Gilliamesque slapstick. Sometimes he doesn’t know when to stop: The film’s climactic mano-a-mano between Lincoln and the film’s rather generic villain, a bloodthirsty plantation owner played by Rufus Sewell, goes on for far too long.
The film’s most valuable asset is the actor playing the title role, the perfectly cast – and disarmingly charismatic – Benjamin Walker. Admittedly, the 30-year-old actor, a dead ringer for the young Liam Neeson, is a lot more effective in his portrayal of the younger Lincoln than in the scenes where he’s saddled with old-age makeup. There’s no denying, however, that the camera’s awfully fond of this guy. He’s the MVP in this slice-and-dice sampling of historical pulp fiction that’s short on the political grandstanding, generous with the butt-kicking, and cheesy in all the right places.