Friday, June 29, 2012

My mother the bear

Don't look now, but your mother's right behind you
Brave (2012) really has the animation fan world's knickers in a twist, fiercely debating as to whether Pixar has slipped and whether they are losing their knack of inventing and telling heart-rending stories.  I suppose time will tell.  As I sat down in the movie theater, I regretted not having a kid to watch the movie with, but then had the pleasure of three young girls behind me of various ages to react to, discuss, explain and evaluate the movie.  Believe me, I didn't mind their talking through the movie, because it was such a valuable window into how the film was working on its intended core audience.

And they LOVED it.  Brave gives us the second female archer of the year (after Hunger Games), although the story doesn't turn on that skill as much as the posters and trailers might make you think.  The title and the advance publicity led me to expect a female-centered action adventure film, but what Pixar has done is invent a new fairy tale which, like so many fairy tales, turns on questions of growing up, changing family roles and coming into one's "powers."  I have to admit I didn't expect a movie with so much time spent on bears, especially when one of them sort-of resembles those dumb bears that used to help the fat park ranger clean up the park in Disney shorts of the 50's.

In a way, I don't care.  Because the reason to see an animated film is not to see more of what live-action films do -- tell stories about characters.  Everybody tries to do that.  The joy of an animated film is that absolutely everything you see is completely fabricated.  Not one thing has been taken unadorned from life in front of us.  It is an entirely designed, drawn, engineered world.  Nothing is real, and you are asked to believe in it all.  This is something only movies can do.

There is nothing inherent about the arranging of images in a sequence in time that requires three-act tales of conflict, challenge or personality development.  The technology is neutral.  It dares the creator -- "Go ahead, put some pictures in order and let's see what an audience will accept."  It's moving ink blots; what you see is a function of what your brain is willing to organize.  So the derivation of classical American cinema from the theater is merely a matter of economic expedience -- this is the cheapest way to put together a whole lot of stories using the resources we already have and understand.  But it is not the complete catalog of what somewhat might choose to put in front of a lens.

So we have Merida's incredible curly, frizzy, tangled mane which is a wonder to behold in and of itself and which would have used up half the computing power in the world 30 years ago, I should imagine.  We have the multiplicitous ways in which dozens of goofy Scottish lairds march into a hall, each of those walks created by an animator expressing his art.  Every background, prop, leaf and arrow, all created by artists, not imported from the "real world."  And to that extent, I will never stop feeling wonder at first-class animation.

If you don't believe me, see the incredible way King Fergus, voiced by the immortal Billy Connolly, impersonates his own teenage daughter as he and his queen roleplay a mother-daughter conversation.  "I don't want to get married, I want to stay single and let my hair flow in the wind as I ride through the glen firing arrows into the sunset."  It is gloriously and hilariously demented in a way that only animation, and excellent animation, can render.

I don't know whether Brave represents a slipping of Pixar's standards or if Merida is a wonderful new entry into the pantheon of Disney princesses.  But it is a superb piece of animation.  And just the way there are things that only Americans can play in jazz and only the French can do with a fish, there are things in film that only great animation can do and you should go see that, and on a big screen if possible, if only for that reason.

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