Pixar notched its 13th-straight #1 box office hit over the weekend with Brave, but the movie's 74% Rotten Tomatoes score tells a different story. Though not nearly as criticized as the studio's previous film, Cars 2, Brave marks another step down in critical acclaim for Pixar, which used to enjoy near-universal praise for every single one of its releases, even when getting into the dicey territory of sequels.
A lot of the critics of Brave took issue with the "twist," which is actuality the central plot of the movie, but which was cleverly hidden in much of the film's marketing. But here at CB, four us all were totally down with Brave and where the story unexpectedly led us, so we got together to figure out why some people objected to the movie so much, and what Pixar and its fans might learn from this backlash going forward. Is the Golden Era of Pixar over? Will they start revealing more in their marketing to help audiences know what to expect? Will they ever get universally great reviews again? All that and more in this special four-person Great Debate.
SPOILERS FOR BRAVE FOLLOW
KATEY: So guys, I think we all kind of had a similar experience with Brave that Kristy and I did when we saw it at the same screening in New York-- walking out delighted with another Pixar movie, only to find a bunch of other critics hating on it. Am I right about that?
SEAN: I actually first whiffed negativity earlier than that. Junketeers at the Amazing Spider-Man press event in early June were railing on it. They'd been to the Brave junket in Scotland, and were saying, "Another miss by Pixar." And they all pointed out the twist as the reason they hated the movie.
KATEY: Did that drive you as crazy as it drove me?
SEAN: Well, what it did was put me on my guard for a possible, potentially terrible plot twist. And when it arrived, I was like, "Okay, let's see where it goes." And I ended up thinking it went to some excellent, moving places. And it sounds like I'm not alone.
KRISTY: I was actually thrilled it went somewhere so unexpected, and found the central relationship--between Merida and her mom--beautifully developed and very engaging.
ERIC: I think that the biggest problem people are having with the twist of the movie is that having a character turn into a bear as a result of magic sounds more like a Disney thing than a Pixar thing.
KRISTY: But it is also a Disney princess movie.
ERIC: But also very much an unconventional one.
KATEY: In the publicity rounds for Brave all the Pixar people kept saying this movie proves they can't be put in a box. And I feel like the bear twist really speaks to that.
SEAN: But guys, Pixar went to great lengths to protect the bear twist. Do you think that's an indication that they might have known in the backs of their minds that it could turn people off?
ERIC: Not at all. Pixar has a long history of keeping their plots secret in ads. There was no Axiom in the ads for Wall-E.
KATEY: Exactly, Eric. I spent forever trying to tell people that. You never saw Charles Muntz in the marketing for Up either.
KRISTY: Some at our screening declared that marketing tactic a bait and switch, but I think that has more to do with our expectations of a princess story than it does the marketing.
KATEY: I think the traditional Pixar marketing might have backfired a bit, for that exact reason that people claimed it's a bait-and-switch, but it's a thrill to go into a movie and find something you honestly didn't see coming.
ERIC: I actually think it's worth mentioning that I figured out the twist behind Brave prior to seeing the movie and it didn't hinder my enjoyment of it at all. I saw the image of the three little bears and the triplets and put two and two together.
KRISTY: Yeah, I had a similar experience. I assumed her whole family went bear.
KATEY: Me too. But the fact that it was mostly about her and her mom made it a surprise still.
ERIC: And that's why the movie works. Because that mother-daughter relationship is so incredibly strong.
SEAN: I'll tell you another reason why the "bear" twist worked so well for me. I was never 100% sure that Fergus wouldn't kill the bear, i.e. his wife. I mean, Disney has no trouble killing off parents. Ever. And Pixar isn't afraid to go down dark-ish avenues. Turning the Queen into a bear built in a level of suspense I wasn't expecting out of Brave. Did you guys fear that possible plot turn at all?
KATEY: Holy cow, Sean, that's dark.
SEAN: I know!
KATEY: Though I guess the ending of Toy Story 3 is pretty dark too, so you're right, you shouldn't put it past them.
ERIC: I didn't necessarily fear that he would actually kill her, but I was most definitely emotionally engaged and fearing for her life.
KRISTY: I was deeply invested, I don't know that I looked head on to if the movie would allow her be killed --but I definitely felt the danger.
SEAN: More than you would in another animated movie, right?
ERIC: For sure.
KATEY: OK, so we've established that Brave worked for all four of us. Do you think there's any lesson to be learned in the backlash against the twist? Or does the box office success for Brave prove that Pixar was totally right in doing it the way they did?
SEAN: I think there's a lesson, and that the Golden Age of Pixar is over. No longer will their features be as universally embraced as they always were.The dissenters are going to get louder now.
ERIC: I completely agree with Sean. Expectation is everything now. The sooner we bring them back to Earth, the better.
SEAN: I'm not so sure that this twist gets as nit-picked as it would have prior to Cars 2. The studio just seems fallible now, and haters feel a little more empowered.
KATEY: Well, we've all been accused of being haters, thanks to our Pixar Movies We Just Can't Love piece. So maybe the liberation of being able to pick on Pixar a bit more is actually a good thing. I at least enjoyed airing out my grievances.
SEAN: But do you guys think they'll ever get back to the 100% or 98% approval rating (on RT) of their earlier films? Or will there forever be a (growing) vocal minority?
KATEY: I totally do, Sean. The people who made all those masterpieces still work there, and I don't think they're run out of ideas. I don't think Brave really deserved the universal praise the earlier ones got, much as I liked it. It's more flawed than a lot of other Pixar films, and many of the reviews fairly pointed that out. But I think a less flawed film is totally possible in the future.
SEAN: Yeah, I'd agree with that.
KRISTY: The pushback/critical scorn is good. It'll keep Pixar on their toes. We don't want them to think they can do no wrong and go the way of M. Night.
ERIC: You don't come up with 10-12 great movies like they did (depending on your opinion) and then just find that the well is dry. They can still do it.
KATEY: Exactly, Eric-- though the failure of John Carter really, really makes me worry about how temperamental genius can be. Andrew Stanton was as good as it got at Pixar, and now we know even he is fallible. Is nothing sacred anymore?!?
KRISTY: But also Pixar has raised the bar for all animation, and other companies are now pursuing darker, more complex stories. Like, the upcoming Rise of the Guardians looks really thrilling to me.
ERIC: DreamWorks has most definitely upped their game in the last couple years.
KATEY: If you push me, I probably have to say How To Train Your Dragon is better than Brave.
KRISTY: I'd agree to that.
ERIC: I was honestly shocked by how much I liked Kung Fu Panda 2 and Puss in Boots.
KATEY: OK, before we run off on a tangent about <>I>Rise of the Guardians, one last question for you guys. Do you think any of the four upcoming Pixar movies we know about-- Monsters University, the "inside the mind" movie, the Dia de los Muertro movie, or the dinosaur movie-- will get the studio back up into that critical valhalla?
KRISTY: I think they'll get dinged for MU, but the other three seem really promising. Still, I think Pixar will no longer be counted as untouchable.
ERIC: The fact that Monsters University is a sequel is automatically going to earn scorn from some, even though I thought the trailer was fantastic. As for the other three projects, I just think it proves that the creative juices are still flowing just from the idea stage and I can't wait to see how they are fleshed out.
KATEY: I'm glad we all still have our optimism-- I hope even the critics of Brave can share it too.