Brave Review: Pixar Stays Close to Home

Pixar’s Brave is almost what I had expected walking into the theater. Another brilliantly animated film from the makers of Toy Story and Up, Brave carries the same charm and visual magic but falls just a wisp short of story .

The story follows Merida (Kelly Macdonald), a Scottish princess, as she attempts to work out some escape from the pursuit of three dimwit suitors, the first-born sons of clan rulers in her father’s kingdom. A tomboy before a princess, the central conflict emerges between Merida’s unwillingness to participate in the competition for her betrothal and her mother, Queen Elinor’s (Emma Thompson) insistence that she act her royal part. This conflict begins during an archery tournament, in which (much to the embarrassment of the Queen) Merida skillfully outdoes her suitors.

The ensuing fallout that ensues persuades Merida to seek solace in the wild forest, where she follows some wild forest spirits to a witch who may just have a spell to change her mother’s state of mind. Unfortunately for Merida (or her mother), it is the usual case that spells of this sort come at a price, and that price here is the Queen becoming a bear. And because fairy tales require a fairy tale ending, the spell also comes with a two-day return policy at the cost of a lesson learned.

While mother and daughter resolve their differences to break the spell, a new conflict arises out of her father King Fergus’s (Billy Connolly) past; he carries a wound from another spell-struck bear, Mardu, who has some ties to the history of the kingdom.

The strongest parts of the film are the beautiful renderings of the Scottish Highlands, from the dark forest to snowy mountain ruins that sit solemnly over the grand Scottish territories. But we don’t see enough of them as the plot proceeds mostly in and around the castle with few and very quickly traveled ventures to other locales.

The characters who fill these settings are full of charm; Merida and her horse Angus energize viewers with the fluidity of their animations, while much comic relief is afforded by her triplet brothers and the many Scottish clansmen. The Highlands are full of allusions to the kingdom’s history, especially regarding Mordu’s tragic past.

If Mordu were given some additional characterization, Brave may have veered closer to The Lion King than its current visualization brought it. But then the movie would’ve been much longer, or maybe its heavily touted mother-daughter themes would have been diminished or abandoned. I consider Mordu and think another movie entirely would’ve been made. When he shows up, he really steals the screen, but maybe I just missed him all the while.


Surreal Beauty, Ideas in Cirque Du Soleil

This week, I had the good fortune to attend two Cirque du Soleil shows on the Vegas Strip: Mystère and O. While strikingly different, both productions exhibit an element of abstraction that leaves much to the interpretation of the audience. Each contains a number of characters and settings connected by mood, tone, and style, so much so that the viewer is insistent on discovering the central story connecting each act. Of course, there is no explicit plot to be found. Much like the surrealist paintings of Salvador Dali, each theatrical act is meant to convey a general theme strewn with enough conflict to move the show forward.

A description of Mystère indicates that the show “provides the ultimate discovery that life itself is a mystery”. This is a powerful summation of its inherent themes, unraveling the mysteries of life through adventure and exploration of the unknown. Not knowing what’s to come, audience members undergo their own exploratory journey of the illusionary wonders before them. There are no central characters around which Mystère progresses, but instead a variety of main characters with their own themes and who are connected by the overarching ideas of mystery and discovery.

While the cast consists of a multitude of unique characters, one of my favorites and most memorable is the Red Bird. The Red Bird broadly symbolizes human progress. He carries himself too proudly amongst others, often jesting or taunting other creatures as a superior terpsichorean. But despite the Red Bird’s inability to fly, his acrobatic superiority is proven at the close of the trampoline act. If he ever did manage flight, would the Red Bird have gained such prowess? While there are those who do fly across the stage in other acts, their appearance is brief and less memorable. In their natural-born abilities, they lack that which Red Bird has gained for himself.

The Red Bird, while memorable, fits thematically with Mystère’s overall stage and character design. The dancers, acrobats, and entertainers offer a variety of colorful, nature-inspired outfits; lizards, birds, tribesmen, and pirates come to life beneath a ship’s sail that alters with the acts, creating a continual dance of life and motion. Of the too many creatures to note, the spermatos are worth a mention for their direct symbolism to the seeds of life, as well is the Clown, described as a “cog in the machine” of Mystère. Hilariously interrupting the acts to interact with the audience, Brian Le Petit reminds us not only of our own journey, but of his and the others’ journeys -like Red Bird-,  that are equally consonant and dissonant with the more seamless harmony of the island set pieces.

While the thematic material of Mystère revolves around the mysteries and possibilities of life’s journey, O is much more philosophical. Titled after the French word eau for ‘water’, O utilizes an incredibly engineered water pool as the theatric stage, creating a dynamic space to mirror the grace and fluidity of water through dance. While water provides the tone and atmosphere of the setting, the subject matter as exemplified by the characters and choreography revolves around the them of infinity, as implied by O’s titular double meaning, the circle representing rebirth.

As with Mystère, O’s themes are experienced both by the characters and the audience. The theater was built to impact one both entering and leaving the show; yet while the visual entrance -an inspiring exhibition of bronze sculptures by Richard MacDonald- does not change, there is a sharp contrast between the anticipation of not knowing what to expect and leaving amidst a throng of wowed spectators. The second most concrete example of the theme of infinity (besides the visual ‘O’ in its many forms throughout the production) comes with the manner in which the show ends, which I won’t spoil here.

There is a great variety of set pieces in O that speak volumes of the embodied imagination. While Mystère manages to create variety even amidst the tropical seas from which it is inspired, O uniquely blends a gothic, romantic style with African-inspired set pieces, creating a stark friction between both the artificially civilized and the primal that reside equally in man. L’Allumé, a modernly dressed man on fire in the Savannah who is either unaware or not concerned with being ablaze.

Le Vieux is the character who most embodies the circular nature of O. He does not particularly stand out throughout the production, relegated often to his orchestra in the background. His journey, however, is one of the many that are connected to the overall theme, just as Mystère juggles its own immense cast of characters. O’s cast is also grand, though less colorful, preferring a simpler overcast of tones rather than the eccentric, quasi-citrus color spots of Mystère. Among the scores of dancers and acrobats, two clowns provide light-hearted intermissions that balance the energetic pacing of the water routines.

One of the greatest acts must be the Russian Swing (although truly there are too many good acts to choose), whereby the largest host of characters participate in a festive routine of high diving after being sprung from platforms weighted by ringing bells. It is described as a part “of life, love and death”, fitting well with the overarching theme that implies notions of rebirth and joy in the present.

While both O and Mystère share many similarities, they are each a character of its own. I think Mystère is the show of characters and O the show of acts, but they each breath themes and ideas that shouldn’t conclude at the stop of the show but in the evolving interpretations of the audience.