Ten Years of Changing Fate and Mending Bonds!: Brave Retrospective

Pixar’s Brave turns ten this year. Who’da thunk that’d ever happen? Since I’ve done many-a Disney movie retrospective, I thought it’d be time for me to tackle Brave! It’s one I remember fondly, but as someone who hadn’t seen it in at least five years, I can’t exactly go off of that. As such, it’s time to see what it’s like from the perspective of a hyper-critical adult!

In Brave, we are taken back to the good old days in ancient… er… Scotland(?). Princess Merida learns to be a badass from her dad, much to the chagrin of her protective mother. Oh, and dad almost gets offed by a bear in that classic Disney fashion. When Merida becomes a teen, mom gets REAL overprotective. Merida hates this, and in her blind rage, makes a deal with a witch to change her fate (you of course have to read those last three words in a Scottish accent). The witch’s spell turns mom into a bear, and the only way to reverse it is to mend the bond torn by pride (oh, and same for those last six words as well).

I sure didn’t appreciate the Celtic atmosphere when I was younger, but for a pagan metal junkie like myself, I was able to enjoy Brave‘s setting more than I ever have. Europe really is something else, and Pixar—as always—knocks it out of the park when making magical locales. This is the perfect opportunity for some Celtic folk-inspired musical numbers…!

…All two of them. The first is a song I guarantee most Disney fans only know the chorus of; you know, it’s the one set of lyrics that they always use every time Brave comes up in a Disney park attraction. Unfortunately, upon hearing the full song for the first time in years, I found it to be one of Disney’s weaker numbers. The iterations of it that appear in the aforementioned Disney attractions have way more weight and impact than its original use in the movie. The other number is a cutesy, sentimental piece used during a mother-daughter bonding montage. I had completely forgotten about it until seeing the movie for this retrospective, and forgetting a Disney song ever existed is a sure sign that it’s not particularly likable. I really feel like they squandered an opportunity here. While their next Disney princess movie (which also turns ten next year) is set in Scandinavia, most of the songs in it aren’t exactly inspired by pagan folk music. 

In case you couldn’t tell, the plot is pretty straightforward. While Merida struggles to mend the bond, she and her mom learn to get along with each other. Things go awry, the dad ends up rallying up the other clansmen to try and kill his own wife, mom realizes that she was being REALLY dense, and the power of love turns her human again. Oh, and they have a run-in with the evil bear from the beginning, who happens to have been a previous customer of the aforementioned witch. Like I’ve said numerous times, you generally don’t see Pixar movies expecting something mind-blowing. 

However, there is something VERY unexpected that I felt quite flummoxed by. There’s implied nudity, including during the brief moment after Merida’s very young brothers turn back from bear to themselves, and even the old fart clan leaders ogling Merida’s naked mom when she turns back into a human. There’s also a scene of one of the brothers swan diving into a very traumatized maid’s cleavage. I’m not joking; there’s even a zoom in right into her bosom. If you’re familiar with hentai, this’ll seem like nothing. However… This is a movie for children; a Pixar movie. Man, how different things would become in just four years after Brave‘s release.

While the plot itself isn’t too interesting, it’s one of the more digestible Pixar movie plots thanks to the movie’s seriously star-studded cast. Most Disney characters are super expressive, but to be perfectly real, they were REALLY expressive in Brave. Every character, and every mannerism, were just so memorable. I enjoyed their interactions way more than when I saw the movie the first time! 

Merida and her mom are the stars of the show, for they are the entire plot. Merida’s cool and all, albeit a bit immature, but her mom is actually one of the best Disney parents… eventually. She’s insufferable at the beginning, but has some amazing moments throughout, such as when she just ear-grabs her husband and the three clansmen to resolve a fracas. Also, the way she tries to act human even when she’s a bear is just perfect as well. Merida’s dad and her brothers are also very silly and rambunctious. The brothers don’t say a single word, and they’re just as bursting with character as everyone else.

The clansmen and their sons are additional comic relief. They all have very distinct character designs, and are—as expected—full of mannerisms. I wish they had more screentime, but it makes sense why they didn’t.

The weakest character is its main antagonist, Mordu the evil bear man. Like I said with The Princess and the Frog: Facilier was the last true Disney villain. In the transitional phase to Disney’s current system, we get some unremarkable Disney villains like Mordu who seem to exist just to spice things up (and we’ll be seeing another example in that other movie that I said would be turning ten next year). He’s at least got good foreshadowing, but he just seemed to be a plot device for the whole movie.

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After All These Years: 9.35/10

I’m gonna be honest, I thought I was going to revisit Brave, and walk out of it thinking it wasn’t a particularly remarkable movie. However, it might be one of my favorite Pixar movies of all time. It’s not groundbreaking, but it just does what Pixar does really, REALLY well in sheer execution. It’s aged really well in every department. I recommend it to kids and Disney nerds.

Lightyear: Pixar’s Simplest Movie

Well, aren’t we lucky this year? Pixar didn’t just give one movie; they gave us two! While Turning Red was great, all the hype was put into the in-universe first installment of the Buzz Lightyear franchise that spawned the popular Toy Story character whom we know and love: Lightyear. It sure looked like a departure from the formula, and those departures tend to be really something. Let’s hope this one meets the company’s high standards.

In Lightyear, the titular character crash lands his ship full of science crew on a hostile alien world. Traumatized from his eff-up, he insists on testing each attempt at reproducing hyperdrive technology. However, each time he does it, time on the planet passes several years because science. By the time he succeeds, everyone he knows and loves is dead, and there are killer robots running around. I feel like the latter is more pertinent.

Before talking about the movie itself, I kind of want to bring up something funny. The visuals, as always with Pixar, are stunning. It looks cartoony, yet photorealistic, as usual. However, keep in mind that in the Toy Story universe, this came out in the early 1990s. That means that CG movies looked better than reality itself, in that universe. I don’t know if that’s supposed to mean something for any Pixar theorists, but I’m just throwing it out there.

In terms of the movie itself, I’m going to be perfectly honest: I’m actually having a hard time trying to find an abundance of positives with Lightyear. For the record, I saw it in theaters, and I’m sure I made it clear how I feel about those. Also, the pre-show had a politically charged climate crisis commercial in it, which put my anxiety on edge for a lot of the beginning of the movie. 

Lastly, I—for some reason—expected something with more nuance. Lightyear is not meant to be like Pixar’s usual introspective stuff; it’s a popcorn flick. I generally don’t do popcorn flicks at all, and I have only seen Disney and Pixar movies lately because I know they aren’t popcorn flicks. I’m just annoyed that I had to go through all the usual theater crap just to see a popcorn flick. I get that most people watch movies just like this all the time, and it’s a customary experience for them. Me being disappointed at Lightyear being overall very mindless and driven entirely by sensory-overloading spectacle is entirely my fault.

With all that being said, I’m going to try to discuss the story—without spoilers—in a scholarly way even though it’s simplistic enough to be described in one sentence. The story is, well, not too remarkable, and this is coming from a Disney fan, which is saying something. Although most of the company’s films are straightforward, there’s some kind of takeaway that only adults can really appreciate. The Incredibles, for example, is definitely a popcorn flick, but it’s one of Pixar’s best movies. In addition to pulse-pounding spectacle, we get the complexities such as Syndrome’s character arc, and clever interactions that I never noticed as a kid, such as when Helen and Bob are arguing about which directions to take to pursue the Omnidroid during the climax. Lightyear, as I’ve implied, has none of that. It’s a mindless action romp where Buzz and a ragtag team of textbook underdogs fight the evil emperor Zurg. The cherry on top is that time travel is involved; that rarely leads to a coherent narrative, and this is not one of those times.

I also found the cast to be among the lamest in a long time. Buzz is perhaps the worst of them all; when a toy version is better than the real thing, you know something is wrong. His obsession with getting everything done himself, and completing the mission, is the catalyst for the entire conflict of the movie. The epic, badass space ranger, whose toy counterpart has won the hearts of millions for decades, is a simple case of “you gotta rely on your friends” straight out of a Disney Junior program. 

There are only four other protagonists who play a major role in the movie, three of which are those aforementioned underdogs, and I only caught one of their names: Izzy Hawthorne. She’s the granddaughter of Buzz’s idol, but she’s not as competent. There’s some skinny guy who’s scared of everything, and a mad convict grandma. Of these three, I only liked the mad convict grandma. She was the best. Everyone else felt like typical characters, whose arcs most people could predict in their sleep. The other character I enjoyed was a robot cat named Socks (or is it Sox?). He’s basically the comic relief, but he has some utility, such as vomiting tranquilizers. 

Zurg in this movie is… er… well, he’s something. I can’t even discuss him without spoiling the movie. Basically, there’s a BS twist that is implied—in context with the universe—Andy, and even Toy Buzz, have known all this time. Since it’s Pixar, I can only assume that the reveal with him has been foreshadowed way back in Toy Story 1, and even the old Buzz Lightyear cartoon that I only remember because it had the voice actress of Shego from Kim Possible in it (MatPat will probably have a video about it if he hasn’t done so already). However, foreshadowing or not, the twist itself approaches Kingdom Hearts levels of nonsensical, and some of the important details are glossed over.

I’m really giving it some flack, so I should highlight some positives. Lightyear is, for all intents and purposes, a sci-fi spectacle drama whose main protagonist is named Buzz Lightyear. However, Pixar manages to really make it believable that it is a Buzz Lightyear movie. All the details are there in the right places, including each line that would inspire the toy’s iconic phrases. They at least did something right.

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Final Verdict: 8.25/10

When Disney and Pixar travel off the beaten path, they tend to put out some of their best and weirdest stuff. Lightyear was not one of those times. In fact, this is the most disappointing Pixar movie I’ve seen in years, even if most of those feelings are on me. Regardless, it’s at least an enjoyable movie, especially considering the kind of “cinema” that most audiences have grown accustomed to by now. As long as you enjoy spectacle movies, Lightyear should be right up your alley.

Turning Red: Kung-Fu Panda But Wholesome

Full transparency: Pixar’s Turning Red was the studio’s first movie since Toy Story 4 that I did NOT want to see. I know that they generally undersell their masterpieces in the trailer, but Turning Red didn’t even LOOK like a Pixar movie. The idea, the character design, the inclusion of at least one famous popstar in the music… It looked like Blue Sky Studios, or any of the non-Disney studios whose movies tend to ONLY appeal to kids. However, with the war going on, there is a chance this could be Pixar’s last movie ever made, on account of the possibility that we’re all going to be vaporized in a nuclear explosion. Also, these movies—regardless of quality—are important to support the Disney industries that I truly care about (that and the fact that I do not use Disney+ often enough). Let’s see if Turning Red describes what my face looks like after watching it!

In Turning Red, Meilin Lee enjoys a quaint life in Toronto, Canada. Unfortunately, she has the classic case of overbearing parent. Oh, and the classic case of turning into a red panda during heightened states of duress.

So… despite all my build up to a negative review, I ended up having my words eaten pretty thoroughly. Right off the bat, Turning Red has a lot of personality, from anime-like flourish, to watching Mei’s dad cook dinner. It also has the level of humor expected from Pixar; whether that’s a good or bad thing is up to your discretion.

Of course, the actual plot is more straightforward than a Saturday morning cartoon. When I said that the idea wasn’t interesting, I meant it. Turning Red is a classic story of a girl with an overbearing parent who inevitably learns to accept herself for who she is. The main “MacGuffin” is a K-Pop concert that Mei wants to attend without her mom’s permission (I know that band is multinational, but I don’t care; boy band=K-Pop). 

I don’t want to sound pretentious here, but I have to mention something that I’m pretty damn sure EVERY review of the movie will be incredibly hoity-toity about: Pixar acknowledges periods. This is the first time in the studio’s history, and it has absolutely no bearing on the quality of the movie to me. Maybe my opinion would be different if I was an actual woman, but I digress. Of course these days, when people have to constantly vomit their humanity to the world, this minor thing that comes up twice in whole movie is way more important than any of the other content.

The cast of Turning Red is as Pixar as you can expect. We already discussed Mei, but the real stars are her friends: Miriam, Priya, and Abby. Packing quirky personalities of their own, their chemistry with Mei is priceless. The mom is, more-or-less, the antagonist of the movie. If you’ve seen her type of character trope before, then you can probably guess how her arc resolves. However, the real MVP is the dad. He has one scene with Mei, and he basically tells her what’s important in life. If he had done it sooner, then a large portion of the conflict of the movie would have never had to transpire. Classic Saturday morning cartoon tropes.

If there is anything negative that I can actually say (other than the generic idea), it’s the setting. Canada is a really lovely place (at least according to its pavilion in EPCOT), but it’s really easy to forget that Turning Red is set in Canada at all. If it rained even one time, I would’ve assumed it was in Seattle. In fact, the movie frequently shows the Canadian flag on T-shirts and stuff, as if they knew you’d forget. In all honesty, I’m just salty that they didn’t set it in Quebec, where the beautiful French architecture is.

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Final Verdict: 8.75/10

Turning Red was way the heck better than I thought it would be. It’s a fun and cute movie to tide us over until Lightyear comes out. It’s no masterpiece like Soul, but it at least has some soul. 

Luca: Kaiju Plus Italian Food Equals Success!

By this point in human history, most of the United States will have been freed from the pandemic that definitely warranted EVERY SINGLE mandate taken against it. Theaters are open, but despite that, Pixar once again elected to squander the chance to actually profit off of one of their movies. Yep, their newest film, Luca, is included with a simple Disney+ subscription, just like with Soul. At least one good thing came from that whole incident!

In Luca, the titular sea monster (or as I would prefer to call it, Kaiju) boy is having a crap life herding fish-sheep with a dream to see the human world. Naturally, he’s forbidden to live said dream. Fortunately, all it takes is a chance encounter with a sassy teenage Kaiju named Alberto for him to completely disregard his parents and head there anyway.

The first interesting thing about this movie is the setting: Italy. This is, to my knowledge, Disney’s first movie to represent Italian culture, and as an Italian myself, it feels… underwhelming? From what I understand, kids of different heritages are supposed to feel some sort of solace in learning about where they came from. And before you tell me that my apathy is because Italians are White, allow me to tell you that Italians were just as much victims of racism in the early 1900s as any minority group. In any case, you can probably chalk up my lack of an existential and cultural awakening to my neuro-atypical brain. If you’re Italian (and not me), you’ll probably fan-gush your butt off at this setting.

What brings said setting to life is Pixar’s long-running expertise in visual presentation. Outside of a few dream sequences, the movie isn’t as abstract as Soul, but it still looks beautiful. It blurs the line between cartoon and realism thanks to its noodly characters contrasting against the extremely detailed environments. The devil is in the detail as usual, especially when it comes to those quintessentially Italian hand gestures.

Also expected from Pixar is Luca‘s very simple plot. The main conflict is that Luca and Alberto want to obtain a motorcycle to travel the world with, the problem being that they need cash. The best opportunity to get cash is to win the Porto Rosso Cup, and luckily enough, they meet a human girl named Giulia who wants to win the Cup as well. Of course, the whole Kaiju thing complicates matters.

For me, the movie’s biggest strength is in its cast of characters. Luca is kind of generic, but he develops some interesting relationships with Alberto and Giulia. Alberto is an interesting case. He has an assertive policy that inspires Luca to explore the human world, but he does it a bit to the Nth degree. This is shown throughout the movie, and is—in recent memory—one of the few organic buildups to that classic “Disney argument”. Giulia is that best friend type who’s proactive and ambitious; she’s not complex but it’s hard not to like her. I have a strange feeling that, given the month that this movie came out in, people will not be pleased at how Luca and Alberto’s relationship turns out in the end.

The parents—for once—manage to both have proper arcs and not die. Luca’s parents are dense as you can expect at first, but eventually have to acknowledge that their little Kaiju’s grown up. In the meantime, they eventually head to the surface to search for him and have some hilarious escapades. Luca’s grandma is much more likable, but she doesn’t get significant screentime. Fortunately, Giulia’s awesome dad makes up for that lack.

The weakest character ends up being the main antagonist (whose name I’m probably spelling wrong), Erkele. He’s the first Disney “villain” in like a decade, and he kind of shows that maybe they should stick with not having villains. He’s very expressive and funny, but he gets no real arc other than to be a jerk and impede the protagonists.

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Final Verdict: 9.25/10

Luca is a great Pixar movie as usual. I don’t quite think it’s as good as Soul, but it’s definitely easier to rewatch since—for the time being—everything from last year is kind of cursed. In any case, Luca is great, and I want to stay at Disney’s Riviera Resort now.

Soul: Pixar’s Most Existential Film

I’m not one of those vocal people who thinks things like “2020 is the year of suffering” because of the media’s scare tactics regarding COVID-19, and their ability to withhold anything legitimately positive. Despite me knowing the actual facts about COVID, it was hard on me as well. Even as someone who’s not active on social media, I am around a number of people who are, and they happen to only focus on one side of the story. So yeah, I’ve broken into tears at least once a week all year. Overly long preface aside, Pixar decided to give us a Christmas present: Soul. I didn’t know what it was about, but I had to see it.

Mild spoilers in this paragraph, if you have no idea what the movie is about. In Soul, a man named Joe Gardner dreams of playing jazz with the big boys—wait, wrong movie—some lady named Dorthea Williams. He manages to land a gig, but dies on the way over to the venue. Now that he’s in purgatory, he’s gotta find a way back into his body. And his only ticket is in a literal wayward soul named Twenty-Two, who wants nothing to do with life.

Boy, this movie is sure… something else. First off, it’s definitely a twist for Disney to have a movie about one of its many, many, MANY deceased characters instead of someone who’s, well, alive. It’s kind of hilarious, actually. In any case, Pixar’s interpretation of the afterworld is more than just a world of never ending happiness where the sun shines both day and night; it’s that usual Pixar sense of imagination. Also, this movie shows just how much more lenient we’ve become with cursing in front of kids. They say the words “hell” and “crap”, which were more than enough to earn you a trip to the former back when I was a kid. Well, Disney was also the first to depict a clergyman and humanity itself in villainous roles in animated media, so… yeah.

Soul has your usual Pixar magic in terms of the storytelling. It knows how to bounce between being hilarious and emotional without feeling inorganic. This one knows how to hammer in the feels, but it gets bizarrely terrifying at times. It’s not outright horror; think along the lines of one of those psychological indie games like Arise: A Simple Story

Like any Disney or Pixar movie, Soul is definitely not new in terms of social commentary. Not to spoil it, but the takeaway is definitely something you’ve seen before, unless you’re literally the target demographic of the movie and have never seen it before. Once again, it’s something that anyone can relate to. Unfortunately, due to the fact that we HAVE to go to work and pay our bills, Soul‘s message will probably be forgotten as easily as the other times the message has been communicated.

The characters are some of the better in Pixar’s filmography. Joe Gardner is an interesting case, not just because he dies, but because he’s the oldest lead protagonist I’ve seen in a Disney animated feature. Given the nature of the movie, his journey is a bit more spiritual than most Disney flicks; definitely keeping up the trend of abandoning the tired “good vs. evil” themes of their past. As you can expect, his father is dead. Big surprise for Disney. But honestly, I feel like this is the first time a Disney parent’s death actually meant something to the plot since Bambi. That’s something at least.

Other than Joe, we have the aforementioned Twenty-Two, who’s the sarcastic and rambunctious type. She and Joe end up learning the same life lesson through each other. Running purgatory is/are a bizarre being named Jerry, along with what serves as the main antagonist: Terry. They’re pretty deadpan, but have some of the better lines in the movie. 

I shouldn’t even bother discussing visuals because Pixar pretty much always nails it. Soul is simply stunning, as good at looking both photorealistic and undeniably cartoony as any Pixar film. The movie does, at least, showcase some of the most abstract and experimental visuals I’ve seen in their entire career. Soul honestly feels like a Pixar short but as a feature film instead. I’d say that they did a great job considering COVID separated the whole team, but this movie was probably in post production since 2018.

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Final Verdict: 9.5/10

Soul is one of the best Pixar movies I’ve ever seen. Everything about it is impeccably executed, and is definitely what the doctor ordered for this year. I recommend Soul if you want a straight-up great movie, especially if you’re a Disney fan.

And P.S.: Disney, can you please do the whole “release movies on Disney+ the same day they would’ve come out in theatres” more often, maybe forever?

Onward Movie Review

The movie poster (that I don't own).

It’s been a hot minute since Disney came up with a new I.P. I didn’t know much about Pixar’s Onward, nor did I have high expectations, but I watched it because it was actually NEW. But hey, trailers for Pixar movies tend to not do the actual film justice. Is it the same case here?

In a fantasy world that’s evolved to the 21st Century, two brothers-  emotionally insecure Ian, and history buff Barley- are given an ancient staff, complete with the instructions for a spell that can bring their deceased father back to life for twenty-four hours. Unfortunately, they do a bad, and dad only comes back as pants and a pair of ugly purple socks. Now they must take Barley’s beat up van on a quest to find the MacGuffin that’ll allow them to recast the spell before dad is lost forever.

The idea of a fantasy world with modern technology isn’t even remotely new, but Pixar pulled it off in a way that felt fresh in its own right. It’s hilarious to see centaurs having to drive cars, and pixies being swole and in biker gangs. But even then, this is probably one of the least interesting Pixar worlds. It’s not really the movie’s fault; this movie has Inside Out and Coco to compete with, and those movies were pretty darn inventive. 

But in terms of narrative, Onward definitely exceeds expectations. There is a lot of great dialogue, and most action scenes make a surprising use of insignificant details peppered throughout the film. For the most part. Ian’s magic staff made me cringe, for it was another case of, “Okay, you can be good at magic now. No other time, though. Sorry, bub.” It does make one “death” later in the movie feel like a heap of shock value given the circumstances.

Of course, Disney and Pixar are still Disney and Pixar. If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen this one. Onward doesn’t have one, but two of those out-of-left-field drama scenes that I always roll my eyes at. I get that it’s character building and crap, but you can only enjoy something so much after seeing it the thousandth time.

The characters are what you’d expect. Ian and Barley are a solid example of the “two-brothers-who-are-at-odds-with-each-other-then-realize-that-they’re-each-other’s-best-friend” trope. Sure, they’re no Edward and Alphonse, or even Mutta and Hibito, but they have some good chemistry with each other given the time restriction of a feature film. Dad is also enjoyable, despite never having a single line of dialogue beyond a cassette tape. Pixar’s prowess makes his mannerisms in such a way to where it’s easy to understand what he’s thinking. 

Surprisingly, the best character ended up being the mom. She’s not an absolute a-hole, nor is she a burden on the main characters. When she finds out about their quest, she goes full Marlin and becomes a freaking bada** in the process of finding them.

The visuals are stellar as always. They always do such a good job with expressions and movement that it’s not even possible to be blown away by Pixar anymore. Because of that, Onward almost feels like a step backwards, visually. Disney in general is all about pushing the envelope, but in their defense, you can only push it so far until it’s just pushed all the way completely. Maybe they were using some [insert advanced 3D modeling mumbo jumbo here] that a pleb like me wouldn’t recognize.

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Final Verdict: 8.5/10

Onward is a great movie, and a great NEW I.P. It’s not the best Pixar movie, but it’s still better than a lot of crap your kids could be consuming. I recommend it for any tier of Disney fan, and for anyone who likes a feel-good story.