The James Clayton Column: Animation should be brave

With Brave out in UK cinemas on Monday, James celebrates the creativity of Pixar, and explains why animation should always strive to push boundaries...

Having already done the rounds in North America, Brave is arriving to grace the screens of its spiritual homeland. A story set in the Scottish Highlands, in an odd way, Disney Pixar’s latest CG-animated feature has finally come home.

Fresh Pixar flicks are always hotly-anticipated and eagerly embraced, but Brave is possibly going to be greeted slightly more warmly as it settles in to Britain’s cinemas. It is after all about a beloved part of these isles, and the production team did their utmost to make Brave feel authentically Scottish as opposed to being twee, tokenistic or simply a generic Disney fairytale flick with a few lashings of Braveheart for good measure.

The tale of Princess Merida – redheaded archer extraordinaire, tradition defier and Pixar’s first female lead – sounds so appealing with its unique period setting, its starry voice cast and its intriguing plot of curses, customs and young courage in the face of ancient adversity. Plus it’s a Pixar animation, and they never fail to deliver works that are visually spectacular. Just look, for instance, at Merida’s lustrous ginger frizz and marvel at the magical abilities of the studio’s technical artisans.

Nevertheless, though not necessarily negative, the reception Brave received on its North American release was a little underwhelming. Critics were positive and people showed up to see it at the multiplex, but they didn’t do so with the same ecstatic fervour experienced in the cases of other Pixar films. A slightly under average box office take and reviews remarking that it’s not the studio’s best raise eyebrows. My hope, as a Pixar fan, is that it finds even more enthusiasm and fewer ‘damned with faint praise’ verdicts as it’s released around the globe.

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This reaction to Brave worries me when I wonder how Pixar and others in the wider film industry will respond. Even before it was screened, voices were suggesting that Brave was, indeed, a “brave” endeavour on behalf of Pixar, the idea that making a female-led movie set in medieval Scotland with slight supernatural elements was a risky move from a business perspective.

I struggle to get my head around this notion. Brave is a Disney film about a courageous young woman from an exotic historical culture and, on a basic level, that’s what Pocahontas and Mulan are. Looking back at Pixar’s oeuvre I see far odder, more audacious premises in the form of, say, Ratatouille, WALL-E and Up.

Brave doesn’t seem so daring when you consider it alongside the French-titled movie about a rat who dreams of becoming a chef in a haute cuisine Paris restaurant. A mostly silent post-apocalyptic robot cleaner romance piece with an environmental message? An adventuring buddy movie about a grouchy old widower, an Asian-American boy scout, a talking dog and a flying balloon house? These are ideas that can definitely be categorised as ‘slightly off-kilter’.

That streak of inspired quirkiness and willingness to work slightly weird material makes Pixar special, and has played a huge part in their success. In a saturated marketplace, they’ve stood out as a unique outfit by pushing unusual concepts. The studio’s creative team then consistently craft those ideas into beautiful films that look amazing, never fail to entertain and always manage to touch children and adults alike. Pixar is undoubtedly an organisation that has a lot of heart and a lot of brain.

I fear, though, that things will threaten the creative spirit that characterises this exceptional establishment. Some mild indifference to Brave could be one such thing and I hope that Pixar doesn’t react in adverse fashion.

That the studio’s pipeline now contains a couple of sequels – Monsters University is following up Monsters, Inc. and Finding Nemo 2 is rumoured – fuels my concern. It’d be tragic if ‘thinking of the box office’ replaced ‘thinking outside the box’, and Pixar’s output started to be dictated by anxiety about appealing to mass audiences, doing the obvious instead of taking risks and sticking to their guns.

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As brilliant as Pixar’s back catalogue is, I know that I for one am more eager to see fresh ideas because there’s more of a thrill in meeting new characters and experiencing the unfamiliar. Innovation is also such an important feature in animated film, because the medium offers the opportunity to push boundaries and create beyond the limits of live-action cinema. We’re artistically working outside the realm of realism here and, thus, imagination can run riot. Rigid thinking and risk avoidance is antithetical to that.

Even more than other genres, it’s my belief that animation should be bolder and seek to be unconventional and challenging partly because of those limitless possibilities. Ruminating on the things that restrict that open canvas outlook, I come to realise that there’s a difference between English language cinema and what’s crudely termed as ‘world cinema’. Hollywood, I reckon, still suffers from a skewed perspective that animation should be patronised as kids’ stuff and that inaccurate ideal doesn’t seem carry in other cultures.

For instance, see how the likes of Grave Of The Fireflies and Waltz With Bashir rank amongst the greatest war films ever, and Akira and Ghost In The Shell are respected as transcendental sci-fi visions. In terms of less explicitly adult fare, Studio Ghibli continue to produce eclectic, idiosyncratic works of wondrous imagination and Sylvain Chomet’s pictures manage to be both melancholy and grotesque but simultaneously joyous and beautiful with barely a word of dialogue being uttered.

The conditions in the English-language mainstream market, however, appear to be more conservative, which makes the successes of Pixar’s quirkiest concepts and oddball animations like Rango all the more remarkable. The fact that these films impress critics, are enjoyed by wide audiences and bring in box office business should be appreciated by those on both inside the industry who reckon animation should be a safe, cosy domain of passive infantile consumption.

Animation is at its best when it’s ambitious and challenging. Audiences of all ages actually like it when they’re being invited into a unique world beyond boundaries, where creativity is flowing freely without limits. By-the-numbers generic targeted marketing exercises, however, get boring fast and won’t last long in memory.

It’ll be interested to see how the ‘unusual’ macabre stop-motion pair ParaNorman and Frankenweenie fare when they hit general release. It’ll also be interesting seeing how Pixar operates in the next few years. Here’s hoping that Brave isn’t just the name of one of their films, but a characteristic attitude that remains at the animation giant’s core.

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James Clayton often gets highly animated but will never look as lustrous as Princess Merida or as cute as Totoro. You can see all his links here or follow him on Twitter.

You can read James’ previous column here.

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