In Bob Dylan's wonderful autobiography he includes a rather cryptic line suggesting that he made bad albums on purpose to cut loose some of the people he though may have got too close to him, to ease the pressure on himself and allow him to prolong his creative spark. I have a theory, and that theory is that Pixar did the exact same thing when they released Cars 2. You see, up until then Pixar had released nothing but wonderful films. The Toy Story series is the finest cinematic trilogy there is, Wall-E was a fantastic homage to the silent era whilst simultaneously being the company's bravest and most forward thinking film, whilst with Up they showed that no topic is off limits when it comes to so-called "children's films" by fashioning one of the tenderest and most heartbreaking opening sequences in recent memory. Simply put, a company who know what good cinema is surely must have known how diabolically shit Cars 2 was. They bashed it out, they phoned it in, they got Brad Paisley and Robbie Williams to sing the worst song ever recorded and they laughed all the way to the bank. The pressure of critical acclaim was getting too much, they needed a break. Fair enough.
Now though they're back, and they're back with a beauty. Brave, the story of the Scottish princess Merida desperately trying to follow her own path rather than be forced down the line of tradition by her mother, is a traditional story given a contemporary spin. Not the most original thing to do, I grant you, but fuck it, they do it brilliantly, and that should be lauded.
In many ways the film feels far more in tune with classic Disney than with classic Pixar. The opening sequence in particular, a succinct expositional scene culminating in Merida's father squaring off with a fearsome Highland bear, before the film's title is emblazoned on the screen, is reminiscent structurally of the opening sequence of The Lion King. Similarly the Princess shtick is something Disney based it's success on, though somewhat predictably here Merida isn't a fawning Sleeping Beauty type, rather she is a modern, gutsy, strong willed heroine determined to live her own life, a fantastic feminist character, one of Pixar's very best. It has to be said too that the film is at times unflinchingly frightening, the dramatic peak at the film's climax being one of Pixar's best works both in terms of animation and tension. All the classic Disney films don't shy away from giving their audience a scare, and it's good to see Pixar carrying that torch proudly.
Merida isn't a fawning Sleeping Beauty type, rather she is a modern, gutsy, strong willed heroine determined to live her own life, a fantastic feminist character, one of Pixar's very best
What really rang true with me though was the folk influence that permeated the film. The score is a gorgeous array of mandolins, guitars, ferocious rhythms and barnstorming beats, whilst the songs, performed by Scottish-Gaelic singer Julie Fowlis, are beautifully written pieces that are a perfect match to the wonderfully rendered set pieces of the film. Pixar have always had a knack of matching songs to their films (the aforementioned Cars 2 shitstorm not withstanding), think of Randy Newman singing "You've Got A Friend In Me", Sarah McLachlan's "When Somebody Loved Me", or Peter Gabriel's "Down To Earth". Julie Fowlis' songs proudly stand alongside these greats. Also, and this is one of the reasons why I love Pixar, they could have got any trendy, in vogue female singer to perform the songs, the fact they got a Scottish folk singer, one who doesn't normally sing in English at that, shows just how much thought goes into the final piece.
Finally, I feel it's always worth mentioning the obligatory Pixar short that precedes the main feature, in this case a beautiful, predominantly silent piece entitled La Luna. These shorts really define the production company, and I genuinely look forward to them as much as the main feature. The fact that nearly 20 years after Toy Story was released they're still churning out inventive, artistic and successful work is a testament to the exceptional force for cinematic good that they are. Bring on Monster's University...but still, best not bother with Toy Story 4 eh?
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