Brave

June 22, 2012 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Kelly MacDonald, Billy Connolly, Emma Thompson
Directed by: Mark Andrews (debut), Brenda Chapman (“The Prince of  Egypt”), Steve Purcell (debut)
Written by: Mark Andrews (“John Carter”), Brenda Chapman (“Cars”), Steve Purcell (debut), and Irene Mecchi (“The Lion King”)

As refreshing and empowering as it is to see an animated film where the main female princess protagonist isn’t waiting around for Prince Charming to whisk her off her feet and ride into the sunset, “Brave,” Pixar’s newest addition to their immensely impressive catalog (with the exception of the “Cars” franchise), isn’t what you’d expect from a studio whose focus has always been great storytelling. In fact, “Brave” borrows so much from past Disney contributions, it’s really difficult to refer to it as an original screenplay.

Nevertheless, when it comes to the technical animated aspects of “Brave,” you still can’t get any better than Pixar animators. The detailed scenery in Scotland where the story takes place is breathtaking as is the creation of the lovely, red-headed Merida (Kelly MacDonald), a young, rebellious princess who refuses to marry a suitor (Princess Jasmine, anyone?) based on tradition and her mother’s wishes. Merida sees herself as a strong-minded warrior who can stand up for herself.

Instead, Merida, whose hair color was obviously chosen because of her fiery spirit, runs off only to complicate things when she meets a witch who casts a spell on her family. It’s at this point of the story where “Brave” veers off ineffectively. The twist is so silly and has no real bearing on the overall mother/daughter relationship narrative at the forefront. Merida is a vibrant character and MacDonald’s voice work brings her to life and offers little girls an opportunity to see themselves in the role of the hero. The last time Pixar got close to this was the mother and daughter characters in 2004’s superhero feature “The Incredibles.” Disney did the last really successful job with the female hero in 2010’s “Tangled.”

While “Brave” has its scene-stealers (Merida’s trio of trouble-making little brothers will cause the most laughter), the script is lacking in imagination and conflict. Give Pixar credit for trying something they hadn’t before in their 17-year history, but “Brave” feels more like a miniscule speck floating around in a grand Pixar universe.

John Carter

March 10, 2012 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collings, Mark Strong
Directed by: Andrew Stanton (“WALL-E,” “Finding Nemo”)
Written by: Andrew Stanton (“WALL-E”) and Mark Andrews (debut) and Michael Chabon (“Spider-Man 2”)

Science fiction seems like such a modern art form, perhaps because it routinely deals with concepts we see as being on the horizon; things we see as staples of the future. It’s all about robots and spaceships and aliens, all things we hope to one day perfect or discover. Maybe that’s why it seems odd that Edgar Rice Burroughs, creator of Tarzan, was writing science fiction novels 100 years ago. He started with “A Princess of Mars,” featuring interplanetary hero John Carter.

Directed by Pixar veteran Andrew Stanton (“WALL-E”), “John Carter” adapts several of Burroughs’ novels to tell the tale of Captain John Carter (Taylor Kitsch), a Confederate Civil War veteran on the hunt for gold in Arizona. After dodging both a conscription effort at the hands of Colonel Powell (Bryan Cranston) and an Apache attack, Carter finds himself transported to the planet Mars after clutching a strange amulet and uttering an even stranger word: Barsoom. Carter’s other-worldliness grants him fantastic abilities on the Red Planet, making him a sought-after warrior in the clashes between Mars’ warring races. After rescuing a princess (Lynn Collins), Carter chooses his allegiance, taking on villains Sab Than (Dominic West) and Matai Shang (Mark Strong), in a battle for the ultimate fate of Mars.

“John Carter” has several significant hurdles on its path toward blockbuster status, not the least of which is the century of blockbusters that have been influenced by its source material, causing “Carter” to come across as a faded copy of countless other science fiction stories. Outsider who acquires amazing powers after venturing to another planet? Sounds like “Superman.” Or how about the outsider who becomes part of a native tribe of really tall aliens? Looks and sounds an awful lot like “Avatar” to me. And that coliseum in the middle of a desert full of screaming aliens watching a human fight giant creatures to the death? It looks like a deleted scene from “Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones.” Add that to the dense mythology the film doles out, featuring goofy sci-fi names like Zodanga, Jasoom, and, uh, Helium, and casual audiences might think they’ve stumbled into a cheapo SyFy Channel knock-off that somehow made its way into a theater.

Thankfully, though, the spectacle ends up muscling away the pulpier elements of the story. Gorgeous steampunk airships glide through the air like gear-driven dragonflies en route to massive walking cities. Giant, green-skined Tharks seem as real as the human actors they stand next to. And Kitsch, best known for his role on NBC’s “Friday Night Lights,” doesn’t bother with nuance and instead just plays the tough guy when it comes to his portrayal of John Carter. Its probably no coincidence that Carter’s costuming and skill with a sword evoke images He-Man. He’s a sci fi/fantasy action figure punching and slicing his way through hordes or marauding Martians. It’s an epic nearly a century in the making, and Stanton has set the table for more grand adventures to come.