Following on from the seemingly franchise-driven slight misstep "Cars 2" (which, in Pixar's defence, it really had to make; I don't see how you could ignore the fact that toy shops were still full of merchandise several years after the film all those toys were based on last showed in a cinema), Pixar has, much to the relief of those of us who have believed in Pixar for so long and spent nights lying awake worrying if, or more likely when, the Disney takeover would work Disney's particular form of anti-magic, gone back to what it does best: telling stories.
"Brave" is not merely the name of the film. "Brave" is also what Pixar was when it decided to make the film. For "Brave" is an unusual thing: an American mainstream film set in an imagined Scotland and with no concession to American audiences. (It is very Scottish. I kept being reminded of our first night in Glasgow in 1996 with Adrienne's aunt and uncle, when they had invited a number of their friends around to meet us and also to celebrate Adrienne's uncle's birthday: people talking to me in an almost aggressively friendly manner, with me failing to understand more than the occasional word but having a lovely time nonetheless.) Also, both of the main characters are female. (There are, I think, leaving aside the servants, only two female characters, but the entire film is built around those two characters. It is possible that their strength draws in part from their position in what is very much a man's world.) And, to put a complete end to the "Cars 2" complaints, there would appear to be no marketing, spin-off or sequel opportunities with this one. It simply is what it is.
Is "Brave" an act of penance, then? Presumably not, as Pixar's usual working method would suggest that the film would have been well into production before "Cars 2" hit the screen. Or, if it is an act of penance, then it must have been pre-emptive penance, if such a thing is possible. What it might be, though, is John Lasseter's tip of the hat to Hayao Miyazaki. We know that Lasseter was a driving force behind bringing the Studio Ghibli masterpieces to English-speaking audiences. There is much of Miyazaki in this film: the painting-like backgrounds, especially on the long-range landscape shots; the strong young female lead; the mystical elements (the forest sprites in "Brave" echo the dust mites in "Totoro", for example); the physical appearance of the witch, who is very much of a type with some of Miyazaki's elderly grannies and crones. (The witch, and her cottage, I am now thinking, must also be something of an homage to the witches that permeated the classic early Disney movies. Well, "duh".)
If you asked me to come up with a pithy mathematical calculation to sum up this film, then, it would probably be "Studio Ghibli meets 'The Secret of Roan Inish'" (a film, Adrienne and I discovered when comparing notes afterwards, that we had both been put in mind of): predominantly whimsical and mystical (the "Roan Inish" connection), but with just the right amount of mindless violence, suspense, and the customary race against time just before the finish.
Somehow I haven't managed to see any reviews or box office news, so I have no idea how "Brave" is playing out in the wider world. We couldn't convince the boys to see it, on account of word having gone around that it is a "girls' film" (which it most definitely isn't; or at least not only; well, okay, it does contain scenes of a girl riding a horse, but it's clearly not "Saddle Club"). But I am working on them, slowly, in the hope that I might get to see it again on the big screen rather than just on DVD later on. (Did I forget to mention that the animation, even by Pixar's lofty standards, is frequently how-did-they-do-that stunning?)
(Also, and again in keeping with Pixar tradition, we were treated to a lovely stand-alone short film as a curtain raiser for the main event. The only thing missing, which Pixar used to do -- although I can't remember if this was always the case -- was a trailer for whatever next year's Pixar film turns out to be. (It may or may not be a sequel to "Monsters, Inc". Another Pixar sequel? Well, the two wonderful "Toy Story" sequels suggest that there is no cause for alarm. Let's give Pixar the benefit of the doubt for now and work on the assumption that "Cars 2" was just an off year. Oh, and go and see "Brave", even if you can't find any kids to drag along with you. I promise you will like it.))