Thursday, 27 December 2012

NerdTech's Film of the Year 2012 - #5

Not a lot of content on the blog for a while, though I should have an update on Dudey Joe 3 in the new year, so I thought I'd get in on the movie-blogging game.
Over the next five days I'm going to run through my top five films of the year, with a (hopefully) quick review of each.

A couple of ground rules first.
When I say "Film of the Year" I do not mean an Oscar style "Best Picture". For one thing I don't see nearly enough artsy indie films to feel comfortable going that way, but mainly it's because my criteria are different. Most "Best Picture" or "Best Film" awards go to films that are the best crafted, where my choice is based purely on enjoyment. Don't make the mistake of thinking I mean "fun" (though that's obviously a factor) - I mean films that engage and entertain on any level. Films that break your heart or horrify you count as entertaining. Most of my favourite films ever are the ones that make me cry!
For example, I believe The Hurt Locker is an exquisite film. Incredibly well made, powerful and intelligent. It deserved to win every single craft based award that year, which it did... but my Film of the Year was Avatar, because that's the one that grabbed me and entertained me from start to finish. The Hurt Locker is objectively the far better film, but it engaged me intellectually more than viscerally. The gut reaction wins the day.

Most people have probably stopped reading after that blow to my credibility, but never mind - on to the awards!

5: Brave - Brenda Chapman & Mark Andrews

This is an animation blog and I'm an animator and, as such, I have a confession to make: Brave was the only new animated film I saw this year. It's entirely possible that ParaNorman, Rise of the Guardians, Frankenweenie or even Madagascar 3 could be better films. Though, in the case of the latter two, I very much doubt it.

The first thing to understand about Brave is that Pixar have it rough. Cars 2 came out last year and it was their worst film ever. From a lot of reviews one might think it was the worst film ever, and that the once reliable studio had released an absolute stinker. Which is just unfair. Cars 2 was made by one of the most consistently brilliant studios in history, and followed the incredible four-piece of Ratatouille, Wall-E, Up and Toy Story 3. Anything would look bad after that!
But what if a different studio had made it? Dreamworks, Pixar's closest competitor, have made a lot more films than Pixar. Yet, of their seventeen computer-generated films, I'd say only How to Train Your Dragon and Kung Fu Panda (1, but not 2) are decisively better than Cars 2, though a case could also be made for Megamind, Antz and Monsters vs. Aliens. I originally included Shrek in that list, but that film (like the pop-culture gags its first half is built on) has not aged well. Cars 2 may appear "bad" when compared to Pixar's other output - but it's in a completely different league to the likes of Shrek 3, Shark Tale and the Madagascars.
Pixar have it rough not because there's anything wrong with Cars 2 and Brave, but because they're being held to a much higher standard than their competition. With that in mind, Brave is one of Pixar's weaker entries. Which, viewed objectively, means that it's a fantastic, beautiful, emotional, entertaining, masterful family film.

It's a much more traditional film than we're used to from Pixar. One of princesses and magic and kid-friendly life-lessons. The setting is a vaguely-mythic ancient Scotland, which might seem unusual but amounts to little more than a standard fairytale land with extra kilts, accents and jokes about cabers. Ironically, "traditional" and "standard" are something of a departure for the studio - even Cars 2 cannot be faulted for its unique and unusual world - but what's not a departure is the emphasis on storytelling and strong characters. Not to mention moments precision-engineered to make me cry like a baby.
The story focuses on Merida, a Disney princess with more in common with Mulan than any other - except, maybe, for the gravity-defying red hair of Ariel. Merida is widely considered Pixar's first female lead (though Helen Parr may beg to differ) and, surprising absolutely no-one, she's a fully-formed human character who just happens to be a girl. The same is true of her mother, Queen Elinor, a proud woman who is preparing her daughter for a life of responsibility and royal duty. Merida, a child as unruly as her hair, wants none of it, preferring horse-riding and archery and other unladylike things.
This conflict comes to a head during a competition for the heirs of three local clans to win Merida's hand in marriage. Merida sabotages the competition, both princess and queen say (and do) things they'll regret, and an ill-thought-out deal is made with a witch. This magical aspect of the story has, refreshingly, been mostly absent from the marketing, so I will not reveal its exact nature here. What the marketing focused on instead was the relationships and Merida's rebelling against her mother - fair, since these are the heart and soul of the film both before and after the mystical twist. When the two main characters are wrestling (and failing) to understand each other are some of the best scenes in the movie. Their arguments feel natural and uncomfortable and escalate in a way all too familiar to anyone who's ever had a mother. We see them say exactly what they need to when the other's not around, but unable to communicate when together. When they finally do come to understand each other it feels real and earned and a natural end to their journey.

The problem with such an intimate story is a certain lack of scale. Despite being filled with sweeping shots of the Scottish landscape, the film plays out in only about four distinct locations - three of which are just visited for brief periods. It's not a huge problem, but it does feel a little limiting. What looks at one point to be the beginnings of that Pixar favourite, the road-trip, quickly turns round and returns to the locations we already know. It makes sense thematically, but does feel a little weird as a viewer.
There are other slight issues - the witch, for instance, seems to be in a completely different film, using modern language and out-of-place jokes about telephone answering systems - but Brave overcomes them easily. Come the finale, which ties together more threads than we realise the film even has, none of the problems matter. We don't care that it's a comparatively weaker Pixar film, we don't care that the locations are limited, that the scale is small, we don't care that the solution might have been too simple - what we do care about is Merida and Elinor and the emotions at the heart of the film. The movie is never more personal than at that moment, and it plays perfectly.

At least, I think that's the case. It was hard to tell through all the tears.