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Pixar’s Brave and the Perils of High Expectations

By on July 2, 2012
Merida, the lead character from Pixar's latest animated feature, Brave. (Image © Disney)

Merida, the lead character from Pixar's latest animated feature, Brave. (Image © Disney)

Pixar Studios has had one of the most incredible winning streaks of any Hollywood studio in history. Beginning with the original Toy Story in 1995, all of their films have grossed at least $360 million at the box office, and received high critical acclaim. The lowest rated Pixar films at the film review aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes are the installments of the Cars franchise, with only 74% and 38% reviews counted as “fresh”, respectively. Ignoring the Cars movies the lowest rated Pixar film is 1998’s A Bug’s Life, which rates a still-impressive 92%.

But that streak was broken by Pixar’s most recent release, Brave. Released on June 22, the film currently sits at 74% fresh. Many critics have called Brave a disappointingly formulaic animated feature below the standards of the studio’s previous emotionally charged features like Finding Nemo or Wall-E. “The Pixar name used to mean something,” griped Stephen Whitty of the Newark Star-Ledger, “and it never quite meant pleasantly safe, safely forgettable movies like this.”

A recurring narrative in the reviews places blame for the perceived failures of the film squarely at the feet of Walt Disney Studios–seemingly based on reports that they had meddled in the film’s creative process. In 2006, Disney acquired Pixar and reportedly made several demands on the studio, including sequels for its most popular films (hence Cars 2 and the upcoming Monsters, Inc. prequel), and a princess movie to follow in the Disney animated tradition. According to this theory, Brave is merely a contractual obligation.

The narrative is so similar in every review that you can make the argument that these critics had made up their minds about Brave before they stepped into the theater. The New York Post’s Sara Stewart called Brave “the studio’s most Disney-fied production yet.”, and Nancy Churnin of the Dallas Morning News went even further, bemoaning the film’s “subpar story that seems to exist mainly to sell a new Disney Princess in the form of wild-haired Merida.”

My own take on Brave was that it was an entertaining film that connected to the fairy tales of ancient Europe while providing a headstrong role model for young girls and an engaging shorthand exploration of mother-daughter relationships—which seems to me to be exactly what that type of film should do. Did Brave include any segment as gut-wrenching as the trash heap inferno of Toy Story 3, or the emotionally devastating montage of Carl and Ellie’s life (and death) in Up? No. This time around Pixar made a film with a clever conceit and a gorgeous surface, but it didn’t make 30-year-olds cry, and therein lies the problem.

Of course, these critics have every right not to like Brave, but the reaction to the film is rather more like a disappointed parent admonishing their child for bringing home a poor report card than a proper discussion of the movie on its own merits. Lisa Kennedy of The Denver Post spelled that analogy out explicitly in her review, as she writes, “saying that Brave is entertaining but not astonishing is pretty much admitting your straight-A student got a B.” The problem here is Pixar’s own past creative achievements, and the high expectations that go along with them.

There may have been no more anticipated film in history than Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. It probably actually benefited from its hype initially with critics, earning a rave review from Roger Ebert, who wrote that if the film were the first Star Wars movie it would be hailed as a “visionary breakthrough”.

This is the face of a visionary. (Image © Lucasfilm)

But soon a groundswell of negative fan reaction defined the film’s disappointing legacy. And, yes, The Phantom Menace is a lousy movie (if you can get past all the bizarre misogyny, Red Letter Media has offered a pretty thorough takedown of the film), but as bad as The Phantom Menace is, it’s impossible to know how the film would have been judged divorced from those expectations. It’s a slight movie, and certainly not one that could ever stand up to three films that have formed the moral core of a generation of fans.

One of my favorite movies in recent years is the critically mauled Tron: Legacy. The film received a sickly 50% score on Rotten Tomatoes, and was recently name-checked on the Comedy Central animated series Futurama, as Leela regretted that she’d never “get back that time [she] spent watching Tron: Legacy”, suggesting that even 1,000 years from now people will think that the movie is garbage.

Olivia Wilde and Garrett Hedlund discuss something as important as it is blue in Tron: Legacy (Image © Disney)

But I expected garbage, and was really happy with the glowing, neon garbage that I got. I went in with such low expectations that I was free to admire the hypnotic visuals and soundtrack, and lose myself in the meditative world of the film. Had I gone into The Phantom Menace expecting nothing I’m sure I would have been kinder to it.

Well…maybe not. (Image © Lucasfilm)

As long as Pixar maintains its reputation of excellence, it will always have those expectations to live up to. As far as problems go, it’s a good one to have.