First off, I know a lot of people would argue here for The Hobbit. Ignore them. They can call up Mario Lopez*, cause those people be haters. Also, we’ll get to The Hobbit later.
*got that pop culture reference in just under the gun. What’s that? Missed the window entirely? No one ever watched “H8R” anyway? No one reading this has any idea of what I'm referencing? Well, "H8R" was a CW show where celebrities went to yell at fans who said mean things about them on the Internet and... you know what, just forget it. This isn't worth saving.
Sometimes, I’m disappointed with a movie but it’s for me hard to understand exactly why. There’s just a vague sense of malaise, a low waw-waw playing somewhere in the distance. Actually, sometimes I don’t even realize it myself. I remember coming home in high school after seeing Men In Black II and my dad saying immediately, “I guess you didn’t like the movie, huh?” That was the first moment I realized I had not.
That’s not the case with Brave. The movie’s flaws are glaring: a half-baked storyline, underwhelming characters, and a strong example of what Ebert always refers to as “the idiot plot” (that is, a problem that could be fixed instantly if the characters acted even slightly logically). If you haven’t seen it, I won’t reveal here what is, in fact, Brave’s best trick: an abrupt right turn in the story halfway through that takes the movie in a fun new direction. It’s just as soon as it does take that turn, the movie’s two main characters abandon all reason and crash wildly, aimlessly, through the rest of the story.
That a children’s movie has a few story flaws shouldn’t be news, except that Brave comes from Pixar, the gold standard of animation and a company that made its name on story and character development. Even as Dreamworks and their own parent company Disney scrambled to catch up, every year Pixar has been laughably ahead of the game in this regard. If we give them a pass on the insisted-on-by-Disney cash grab that was Cars 2 (which everyone’s been very understanding about), this is the first movie that Pixar’s handed us where animation trumped imagination.
Here’s why they should know better: early on in Pixar’s run, they began expanding their moviemaking department so that they weren’t just cranking out one film at a time (a schedule that would give them a film every three years or so). The team that made Toy Story was working on A Bug’s Life, while their B-team began work on Toy Story 2, which was conceived as a direct-to-DVD movie. But Toy Story 2’s story just wouldn’t come together, and as the movie got further and further into development, it became more and more of a mess. At the same time, Disney decided to bump Toy Story 2 from a DVD to a theatrical release.
Fortunately, the creative team working on A Bug’s Life finished and were able to come in and rescue Toy Story 2. In a weekend, they’d reconceived the whole movie, and a frenetic nine months later, released one of their most critically acclaimed films (it has a 100% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes to this day). And they promised themselves that they’d never make another movie where they didn’t put their top creative talent in charge.
Until Brave, they kept that promise. Look at the list of writers and directors on Pixar films up to this point, and Pixar’s top names can be spotted on every film: John Lasseter, Pete Docter, Andrew Stanton, Brad Bird, Lee Unkrich. And then we get to Brave and… Mark Andrews? Brenda Chapman? Who are these people*?
*it turns out Mark Andrews was a Pixar story supervisor (a story supervisor is a writer who gets paid extra), and Brenda Chapman directed The Prince of Egypt, a movie that was considerably more successful than I remembered.
I get that Pixar’s top players are going to have to hand over the reins at some point. In fact, one of their greatest successes was bringing in acclaimed-but-forgotten director Brad Bird, so you have to cut them a little slack here. But I think they’re going have to be a little more careful next time they try to pass on responsibility, because I’ve lost a little faith that someone’s really watching the store.