RIORI Vol 3, Installment 33: Richard Donner’s “Timeline” (2003)


The Players…

Paul Walker, Frances O’Connor, Gerard Butler, Billy Connelly, David Thewlis and Neal McDonough, with Ethan Embry, Matt Craven and Rossif Sutherland.

The Story…

Archaeology can be a dirty business. It can also be boring and thankless, contributing to the historical record to an indifferent public. It’s really tough bringing glimpses of the past to eyes of the modern age in the name of science and social development. One would assume that if the powers deemed possible getting the message out would require some tangible, active analog to our 21st sense of being. A time machine would be nice (chuckle).

No such thing exists. On purpose.

But Einstein—that devil of a physicist—once purported that if one could fold space-time (literally make ends meet), wouldn’t it result in a  shortcut? You know, the swiftest distance between two points is a straight line, regardless of the medium?

Uncle Al coined it a “wormhole.”

Betcha he never imagined such as gizmo would burp up in the French countryside.

The Rant…

Hey. If you were there, do you remember back in the 90s when all those movies adapted from Michael Crichton’s books were oozing from the cineplex? Sure you do; it was inescapable as death, taxes and overly extended jams at a Phish concert. You can either thank or blame the original Jurassic Park as the first sortie of Hollywood’s assault on Crichton’s library for that. Don’t get me wrong. The original Park was very fun and delivered with the trademark Spielbergian élan. But just cuz an Oscar-winning director does a bang up job of translating page to screen—the guy did have a little experience before with a tiny film called Jaws—doesn’t mean any studio worth their salt can just acquire the film rights to a successful novelist’s work and make it stick to the silver screen (e.g.: virtually every Stephen King movie ever made, past and future).

To which you say: no sh*t.

Don’t misunderstand me anymore than you usually do. I’ve read my fair share of Crichton novels. One of my favorite, desert island books is the man’s autobio/travelogue Travels. Of course I read Jurassic and many of his other books that ultimately went through the movie mill, almost all of them screw ups. As for the books, Congo, The Great Train Robbery, Eaters Of The Dead, The Andromeda Strain, The Terminal Man and (another personal fave) Sphere varying in quality from pretty good to downright awesome. These titles all made it to screen. Some shouldn’t have. I mean, some had no business whatsoever being made into a movie. True Jurassic, Andromeda, Train and Terminal were damn fine. Hell, Crichton himself directed Train, did a good job and wisely hitched his wagon to Sean Connery lending some star power, so the guy knew a little about how to make a movie work. But those films were anomalies torn from Crichton’s pages. The remainder (and the list is long) sucked big dumb insert offensive sexual simile here.

Why was this? Crichton wrote primarily science fiction with the classic, no-fail tropes attached. Technology run amok. Meddling in God’s domain. Culture clash. Hard to f*ck up such simple, well-established story devices. But Hollywood did, over and over again. Still, there really was no wonder why the studios kept placing bets and throwing darts at Crichton movies. Since Jurassic Park made a mint, and that medical drama on TV ER was sucking up ratings, let’s hop on the bandwagon (a bandwagon Hollywood almost singularly created)! We got a cash cow to milk into Parmalat!

Uh, no. And not even Stamos could resuscitate the show towards the end of its vaunted run.

So again, why did most Crichton films tank? Of course I have a theory. Lissen hup.

Back in my high school days—not long after Jurassic had theatrical release—I immersed myself in Crichton’s catalog. As I said I read Travels, Congo et al with aplomb. I also mentioned my favorite novel of his was Sphere. For those not in the knowSphere was about a group of scientists who discover a spaceship on the ocean floor. Said spaceship appeared to come from the not-so-distant future and somehow got bounced back in time. The rest of the plot was simple: figure out how and why. Like with all good sci-fi, we had mystery, technodrama and the human condition examined into the ground but not before setting up some keen tension. Simple. Really. What made Sphere crackle was said human drama and the thrill of a mystery, both well rendered by Crichton’s pen. I caught Jurassic (the gateway drug), dug it and tore into and loved Sphere. Even back in those pimply, sexually frustrated adolescent days I knew that if Sphere ever made it to being a movie, they’d f*ck it up.

Fast forward to my college days. Me and my buddy Mark—I’ve mentioned him here before. We were java jockeys at the local cafe—were quite the bookworms. Every year before summer break we complied a list of must-read books to chew over before school reconvened in the fall. We always suggested to one another a personal recommendation. I had discovered via primitive online message boards that my beloved Sphere was gonna get the Hollywood treatment. The horror. I insisted, nay, demanded of Mark to read the book before the movie was released. I told him in no uncertain terms that the movie would ruin the book. They’d f*ck it up. For sure.

Mark heeded my words. The following fall he raved about the book, but he failed to regard my movie caution. He later caught the film version (inexplicably directed by Barry “Rain Man” Levinson). Christ, why I don’t know. Don’t look at it, Marian. Close your eyes. When I next saw him, he was stunned. I’m not kidding. Like “that newborn babe looks nothing like me” stunned. He shook his head after coming back from the cinema and told me, “Sh*t Nate, you were right. They f*cked it up. How’d you know?”

Here’s how I knew. My theory, which is steeped in centuries of fiction writing:

Sure, Crichton’s tales were littered with cool tech, intricate detailing (the man sure know how to do his research) and wild ideas. But that’s not what made his books great. Hell, none of that crap makes a story great. Whether it be time traveling spaceships, cloned dinosaurs or space viruses, it’s all frosting. All that sh*t is the hook, what initially nabs your attention. It’s characterization and how the cast reacts to the weirdness—that classic tension bringing about conflict and ensuing drama—that creates the backbone of the story. What keeps you turning the pages. Without interesting characters and compelling conflict (manifesting itself into “how do we get out of this mess?”), the whole narrative falls flat. What Hollywood has failed to understand time and time again is no matter how much whiz-bang you throw at the audience—adapted from a bestseller or otherwise—if you don’t got no meat on the bone, all that shiny ain’t gonna save a crap movie. And gristle can look mighty shiny.

I guess that applies to all stories, movie scripts included. Just a thought.

Since those heady days of nineteen ninety whatever, Crichton movie adaptations have fallen by the wayside. Probably too many turkeys courtesy of Tinsel Town to risk a loss leader. The last one made was back in 1999 with The 13 Warrior (adapted from Eaters Of The Dead) before Timeline lurched to life in 03. This is an eternity in Hollywood regarding riding a pony like Crichton’s works. I mean, look at today’s John Grisham output. Right.

Maybe taking a vacation away from movie adaptations of John’s smart efforts will prove good, if not better in the long run. I figure only time may tell.

Oh, shut up. That was f*cking brilliant…

You know that quote by Philip Burke? “Those who who don’t know history are destined to repeat it?” Most folks misquote that one as “doomed to repeat it.” Well, thanks to an overly high-tech “delivery service” with a thirst for knowledge that bent is more accurate.

Archaeology professor Ed Johnston and his son Chris (Connolly and Walker) are conducting some research in Southern France. The professor and his crew of the usual scruffy history buffs with scabby knees and permanent grime under their nails are hip deep in a dig. They’re carefully dissecting the ruins of Castelgard, an important stronghold from the Hundred Years war. In simpler terms: “pig in sh*t” territory.

To Chris, it ain’t nothin’ but another hole in the ground. Unlike his historian dad, Chris prefers his knees off the ground and hands clean. His dad knows his son isn’t cut out for archaeology, despite his respect for history. Ed also knows that Chris is only tagging along to get with Kate (O’Connor), one of the best and brightest students. It’s funny what guys’ll do to score a chick.

The dig proves to be a curious one. There are edifices here and there that are out of synch with the historical record. The anomalies intrigue Andre Merek (Butler), the site manager, but upset Professor Johnston. He gets a suspicion that the dig’s benefactors ITC have been tampering with things. Incensed at the possibility of his work getting botched, Johnston hauls ass out to HQ for an explanation.

He doesn’t get one. At least not in the conventional sense.

Meanwhile, Kate and Chris are crawling around the catacombs of Castelgard. Not only do they uncover more curious artifacts, but Kate accidentally trips over a very unique relic: a chipped and scratched lens from a pair of bifocals. The caves have been sealed from around 600 years; folks didn’t wear bifocals back then.

Especially ones with plastic lenses.

Fast forward to ITC. Where’s the Professor? How the hell could these dusty antiques be from six centuries ago be made only in the modern age? What’s going on at the site anyway?

ITC’s prez Rob Doniger (Thewlis) is hesitant to explain. Best leave it up to his right-hand man Kramer (Craven) to take the reigns:

“Have you ever heard of a wormhole?”

You know that quote attributed to Alexander Pope? “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing?” Yeah, somebody should’ve reminded Doniger and his cronies of that…

Okay. About that Crichton tech being misunderstood and/or misused. Timeline didn’t do that. It kept the technobabble short and F/X quick and tasteful. Everything after that fell on its face.

To be fair, tag “for the most part” at the end of the last finger point. I gotta admit, for all the movie’s flaws, director Donner. was hip to keeping the dread splash and dash in check with Timeline, at fate most Crichton-inspired films have succumbed to. He fell back on his strengths: make Timeline into an action/adventure. Instead of maverick cops and their shenanigans, we’ll do knights with swords a-clashin’. Sure, we’re gonna throw a sop to the Crichton purists out there (maybe the author himself), try to keep the movie sailing along with the concepts and characters at odds with one another with sharp tension. And Timeline did have that in fits and starts. But there were two major flaws colluding against the movie being…how shall I put this? Not sucking too much?

Here’s exhibit A: Donner, though a solid, journeyman director, has had no solid experience directing S/F movies, of which Timeline is toeing the line. Before you starts hurling beer cans at me, again, full ones this time hear me out (like you have a choice anyway, and ignore that back button in the upper left). I don’t consider the first two original Superman films S/F. They’re more fantasy/action movies with a lot of good, cheesy B-movie pulp nods, mostly from the cast (Brando being in the first and getting top billing alone is hilarious). Not hard S/F, or very soft either. Great stuff, but quite a different animal than Timeline, barring the scene where Supes recused Lois for the umpteenth time. No. For the most part Donner has been a spinner of action tales with a few comedic fantasy films along the way (e.g.: Ladyhawke, Scrooged, et al). Although he didn’t outright swamp the audience with info overload, like a lot of Crichton movies have a tendency toward, he did apply his almost signature 80s style directing panache to Timeline: “high concept” low production value with a healthy dose of attempting to be clever and/or cute. Sometimes it even works.

Not here. Timeline felt like it was reaching towards a 21st Century Jules Verne aesthetic. The film is too slick. Lacks bite. It’s hurried but not urgent. It has its exciting moments and was often entertaining, but smelled like cosplay/Renaissance Faire gone awry. Donner’s in yo face style does not let itself well to would-be “high concept” S/F; no room for subtlety. The guy didn’t seem to understand how S/F—especially Crichton’s—worked. You just can’t smack the audience upside the puss with a gym sock filled with glitter and expect them to just roll with it. I’m not talking the crucial “interior logic” paradigm that needs to be followed AT ALL TIMES in an S/F movie (do not dispute me; I read it in Popular Mechanics). I’m talking about a bait and switch here. The nifty time travel aspects of the film were all but abandoned by Act 3. Instead we got the aforementioned joust/history lesson. If Donner was on the ball, understood his source material and took notes from other Crichton scripts (e.g. Jurassic Park), Timeline might’ve been more engaging. Instead Donner saw Riggs and Murtaugh gallivanting across medieval France with no regard for diplomatic immunity. He lost the plot. Sure, he did a good job directing, but it meant for another film. Maybe The Goonies for grown-ups, which might not’ve been a bad thing if you think about it. Now do the Truffle Shuffle.

The other tech flaws with Timeline are myriad. The movie pulled the classic flub in trying to pull a huge info dump into a very small window. Again, like with so many past Crichton flicks, the science in his S/F got stripped bare and dumbed down to just the juicy bits. Sure, a few sparks of from the writer’s fevered imagination squeaked by, but this is Hollywood here and  we need to inject only enough smart to make it sell (or dumb, which is more probable). I repeat, I don’t think Donner really knew what he was getting into. Or just fell back on old formulas (some might say habits) and just galloped through production with not enough wisecracks at the ready. Oh, that and he hadn’t made a movie since (thankfully) the final Lethal Weapon film. Might’ve gotten a tad rusty like an old suit of armor (I’ll stop it now).

Now, enter exhibit B: The acting. It’s wooden, stiff. It’s likely Timeline‘s greatest fault. Our hero Walker tried to be strong, but his delivery came across as just plain awkward. It’s understood that the “reluctant hero” archetype is a favorite one, but his Chris came over as too reluctant. The character was passive and reactionary. I mean, he was trying to rescue his dad, for Pete’s sake. The least he could’ve done was overtly care. Don’t misunderstand me, Walker could play rough and ready (those Fast And Furious flicks are lacking without him, and they had a lot to lack, future ones also), but here he just seems rudderless. No love lost here for O’Connor, Thewlis and Connelly, too. All caricatures, all going through the stereotypical motions with next to no verve. The third tier characters were more interesting than the leads (especially Craven and Embry, God bless ’em).

The one bright spot in the cast of sleepwalkers was Butler’s Renek. His had a certain Captain Kirk vibe about him: kinda hammy, kinda funny, rather passionate. It wasn’t just me being a Trekkie, either. Renek was the only guy in this motley crew that gave a sh*t about what was at stake. Also not to mention his entrenched love of archaeology had him chewing into the historical record as he would have wanted to as if he was there. Good thing he was. Renek’s Han Solo scrappiness/Indiana Jones enthusiasm/insert any Harry Ford character’s charms here was a lot of fun and actually made you interested in the story when everything else had hopped the tracks.

Apart from Butler’s performance, wanna know another good thing Timeline possessed? Editing. Editors don’t really get the due they deserve. Movies aren’t put together in a linear fashion. At the end of the day it’s all patchwork, spackle and crossed fingers. Timeline felt seamless. I said it was slick, but it also was smooth. Almost everything here ran together well, so the throughput was a very direct execution amidst a messy fest of wonky S/F malarky, clipped exposition and Donner beating us over the head with a sledgehammer on speed. In sum, Timeline didn’t feel like two hours crawled by, and my attention span is about as long as look a puppy!

An aside: although I found Timeline‘s editing to be on the mark, I felt a small tweak was in order. I know, plenty of legit directors and scenarists have already “tweaked” with stories like this a jillion times over in the past with varying degrees of success. Based on watching a thousand more movies than any sane idiot would do, I think I learned a little bit. Not much, but here’s hoping: Timeline might’ve been a lot better with more of those sharp, angular cuts between “then and now,” modulating closer and closer, thereby heightening some tension (which this movie so desperately needed). If we got us a time travel piece here, relegating the “present” to the back seat kinda robs the story some of that urgency to make an adventure flick click. Just a thought. Don’t worry, though, no one at Paramount ever calls me back. Must’ve been my Star Trek/snuff film mash-up pitch.

So what have we learned? By my writing, not a lot, except I need more Lamictal and fewer cans of PBR down the throat. But I think all films have a message to send, even the cruddy ones. C’mon, a time travel tale, no matter how tepid, piques the brain cells. As far as I could glean from Timeline, the message there was this: how much have we f*cked with history? Like Walt Benjamin said, “History is written by the victors.” Hopefully not these victors.

One final thing (yer welcome): let’s just face it. You can thank (or curse) the original Jurassic for all the Crichton adaptations that followed in its wake. Most have been scattershot, usually a result of Hollywood grease or underestimating the audiences’ collective intelligence (my money’s on…both to be honest). You can’t write smart fiction and expect a guaranteed buck with it at the multiplex. It’s been proven time and again (remember Congo? Don’t) that technothrillers often loose their tech, characterization and backbones once they take a ride through the sawmill. I guess that’s inevitable. Too bad since Timeline had a lot of potential going for it, which got squandered by mismatching everything.

Anyway, about that R-rated Goonies concept. Sloth should be played by Steve Buscemi. Heavy duty CGI there.

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Here we have it folks, the movie The Standard exists to be. A solid “I don’t know,” separate from scams, egos and hype. Timeline was lame, yet it tried hard to not be. The esteemed director was out of his league, but did his best. Paul Walker was the (diminished) lead. I like ice cream. In the endgame, this was a simple action movie with some fairy dust sprinkled over its glossy wings. Timeline would be the kind of flick you’d stumble onto via TBS and let the remote fall to the floor. Call it all a complement, really. Meanwhile I’m still waiting for Mad Max: Fury Road to get here via bruised disc because I can’t afford streaming and the flying monkeys—

Dang. Bitchiest verdict I ever posted. Tune in and enjoy the show this time and next time! I got this thing on my thigh to…never mind.

Stray Observations…

  • Hey, that’s Donner in the opening scene, driving the car.
  • “I’m not interested in the past.” Foreshadowing maybe?
  • Nice to see that goofball from Empire Records was still able to find work.
  • “Now we wait.”
  • I’ve heard that Crichton got often irritated with how his work was bowdlerized to film. You ever think he ever got really pissed about it? Who knows, but I bet he still cashed the checks.
  • “Please tell me you have a backup plan.” Mantra of the movie.
  • Is it because I’m of French heritage I generally dislike British fiction? Or is it I despise boiling everything before I eat?
  • I knew REDACTED was going to stay behind by Act 2. Hey, it’s a time travel flick. Something always gets left behind.
  • “…Why didn’t you listen to me?”
  • Trebuchets worked. It took weeks but they worked.
  • “It’s me!”
  • “Fire The Moat” would be a great name for some emo band. Who’s with me?
  • Paul Walker, the poor man’s Keanu Reeves. I can’t believe I just wrote that.
  • Postscript: After a hat trick of bleah movies, I’m gonna take some personal time to clear off my palette (that and a I have few days off of work). Mad Max: Fury Road was just unleashed on Netflix so I plan to indulge in all four films for the coming week. Just gimme a bit away from the loose cannon fodder and allow me to watch Mel Gibson and Tom Hardy drive us to the end of love. Deal? Call your mom.

Next Installment…

There is now an entire generation of kids who have no idea what the phrase “Be Kind Rewind” even means. I envy them.

RIORI Vol. 3, Installment 20: Mark Andrews & Brenda Chapman’s “Brave” (2012)



The Voices…

Kelly MacDonald, Emma Thompson, Billy Connelly, Craig Ferguson and Robbie Coltrane, with Kevin McKidd and Julie Walters.

The Story…

Princess Merida may be royalty, but tiaras and galas aren’t her thing. Just let her ride on an overpowered steed and shoot arrows at anything that moves (or doesn’t move) and she’s happy as a hog in its waller.

Understandably her prim and proper mum Queen Elinor isn’t too keen on Merida’s tomboyish ways. Sure, it was cute when she was young. Enough so to let her da King Fergus encourage a love of hunting in his wee lass. But now Merida is a young woman, and should soon be courting a husband, preferably a stuffy, awkward young man from one of Fergus’ rival clans.

It’s now a classic adolescent battle of wills. Both on Merida and Elinor’s part. Propriety or archery? Who’s to say which is appropriate?

Neither. So now the arrows really start flying.

 The Rant…

Here’s a new one.

This is the first RIORI installment to pick apart an animated feature. And a Pixar release, no less. And also at the behest of my kid. She’s been gradually getting wise to why Dad locks himself up in his office and/or make jaunts out the local library with his laptop in tow. She doesn’t like that. She’d rather we play with Legos. So would I, but I figure for all the times she’s been dictating her parents’ movie watching habits at the theatre, she’d let out a little line for Dad to play by himself. Especially since she ostensibly picked the movie this time out.

She’s 8. It’s like drawing in a 1000-pound marlin. I will lose.

But not this time, dammit! Now you go to your room for 90 minutes while Daddy cringes before the DVD player. Good girl.

A few millennia ago I spoke about how few options I have picking out and seeing a first-run movie. For lack of funds for a real babysitter—and the grandparents’ increasing reluctance to play Mary Poppins—I’ve had to settle on animated features for my movie money at the multiplex. Not that this was always a bad thing. In recent years, I’ve been audience to The Lego Movie, which I found to be a delight (which stoked the fires of imagination in my little one’s fevered brain). Maleficent was serviceable, though trite for anyone no longer Santa Claus eligible. The recent Pixar vehicle Inside Out was awesome, making it my fave after Up. The Secret World Of Arriety was quite engrossing (me being a Miyazaki fan in specific and an otaku in general helped). And Frozen was Frozen was bedsheets.

But truth be told, being nagged into seeing only animated films in the theaters can really wear on a Peter Wier fan like myself. I like my cartoons, sure, and am quite fond of the animated shorts that precede the features at the local, classy second-run movie house. However I like the option to see a sub-PG flick, and not being screeched in to one.

Well thank Heavens for the folks at Pixar. Their work is almost always a welcome addition to any marquee.

When I was in college between studying, binge drinking and studying binge drinking, the spring of ’95 introduced to an unsuspecting, movie-going public to the future of animated films. A semi-regular thing my friends and I did on a lazy Saturday was to take a break, go out that evening to the multiplex and take in a movie. Thanks to the nascent media saturation online, we got hip to forthcoming films of interest a via Internet message boards a whole month before the newswire reached the mainstream media (this was the 90s. Time for you to let out some line). We heard about some upstart animation studio calling themselves Pixar (maybe you’ve heard of them) releasing their debut film that would herald in the next-gen of cartoons. It was computer generated en toto. It wasn’t traditional cell animation, and not a blend of CGI with the classic cartooning technique. No. It was completely rendered  in pixels. A first for a full feature-length film. Even I left my flask alone on opening night.

Toy Story was both a revolution and a portent for all animated movies coming down the pike. It also more or less set the standard for voice-acting and storyboarding for the next 20 years. However, I don’t think this was what the geniuses at Pixar intended for at the time. Sure, the maverick studio knew they were the first shot fired in the battle for supremacy when it came to future animated features (as well as probably trying to unseat the monolithic Disney as king of the cartooning mountain). I don’t think they intended to became the actual monolith itself. This might’ve proven right since a great deal of audiences back then viewed Toy Story‘s pixelated renditions of sentient playthings as nothing more than a novelty. A very well-executed novelty, but a lark nonetheless. Full CGI would never replace traditional cell animation, the standard for close to a century.


Fast forward two decades…

All right, all right. You know. Now there’s no such thing as cell yadda yadda yadda pass the Twizzlers. Every animated feature film is pixelated now. This became the reality in no small part to Pixar’s capital-Q quality movies, setting the gold standard. And not just in picture quality and special effects, which one has to admit has been evolving as the tech has, and are increasingly more beautiful and intricate with every ensuing release. There’s also excellent voice acting from name stars, compelling characters and—above all—captivating stories.

That last part’s the key to Pixar’s success. Hey, if it was just all about shock-and-awe tactics, people would tire of the studio’s schtick years ago. You want splash and dash? Go check out half of DreamWorks’ output. Or Warners. Hell, even Disney lately (the parent company, BTW). But if you want consistency and substance, not just a fleeting rush, the go-to guys have been Pixar for years. They ain’t number one for nothin’.

That’s been the case. But recently I’ve caught a whiff of something lurking.

Now I’ll admit I’m a touch cynical when it comes to Hollywood (speaking of shock-and-awe). I get suspicious of winning formulas obviously rehashed in lessening forms like with the Die Hard franchise. Call it movie vigilance or otherwise Alex Jones panic theory in action (perhaps both), but I can’t help but sense a taint—a slight but perceptible decline in quality in Pixar’s work as of recent. It’s actually more of a hiccup, if you will. Barring Inside Out, the studio’s latest projects are less sticking to a winning formula but rather approaching formulaic. The feeling of cutting-edge began to dull a shade, and the stories are taking fewer risks. Instead of appealing to a mass audience—I tell my friends that Pixar movies are family films, not just kiddie fare—the G-rated crowd seems to have squarely targeted first and mopey, ever-patient parents an increasingly distant second.

I could blame Disney, with their acquisition of Pixar almost a decade ago. But before I go on, let me say that I find it ironic the studio who rejected most of the brains behind Pixar—who thereby quit the House of Mouse to fly solo—eventually and in essence hired the lot back. Unsure if this was either because of Pixar’s runaway success or their becoming an active threat in digging in to Disney’s pie. Perhaps both. One would be hard pressed to deny that Disney’s own animated efforts (save Frozen, which was co-created by former Pixar artists) have been lacking for…well, ever since Disney bought Pixar. I think the former was hedging a bet when they bought out the latter. At least Diz was astute enough to let Pixar hold onto its moniker and a certain degree of autonomy.

So sure, it could be easy to beat up on Disney for Pixar’s scattershot record as of late. But you know what they say, if you sell it, someone will buy it for the right price. If you think about it, possibly without Disney’s budget, wonders like Up and Inside Out with their exceptional programming might not have happened. Perhaps.

That being said, one can’t fault Pixar’s hit-and-miss recent catalogue completely on Disney. It was shortly after the first Cars movie that Pixar’s quality and consistency started to slip, and not long before Diz stepped in with its deal and clout—and their increasingly lame animated movies—that Pixar’s output may well be described as “scattershot.” Cars was a prime example of aiming a Pixar movie straight at the kiddies (despite hiring Larry the Cable Guy, a blessing or a curse depending on whom you ask. Please, don’t ask me) diluting some of the Pixar spark. The final result was meh. Too bad it was Paul Newman’s swan song.

But then we had the unimpeachable WALL-E, followed by the winner Up. Both innovative and classic in a single breath. Both borrowing from classic Hollywood tropes with a surprisingly modernist touch, if not post-modern. They had excellent voice acting with quality actors, veteran and newbs alike, emoting as well as they might on the sound stage (it took a little longer with WALL-E, but it was worth the wait. Go Fred Willard!). And the sharp animation didn’t hurt either. Both films were very rewarding.

Sorry. I wasn’t much of a fan of Ratatouille, despite the subject matter and Patton Oswalt. Don’t hit me.

Then, for some inexplicable reason, we got Cars 2. You understand the machinations behind creating sequels. Either there’s another story there to follow up on, like with the James Bond movies (most were based on a series of books, after all), or the parent studio smelled big buckaroos capitalizing on a winning formula. Or trend. Or gimmick. Or whatever obscures common sense in the studio boardroom. Out rolls the cheddar until the mold takes hold. Then come the reboots.

Seriously though, Cars 2 was the first release under the banner of the Disney/Pixar name. And it stunk. It was nothing more than 80-plus minutes of gimmickry, distraction, sparkly and product placement. It was later followed, but not in direct order, by another needless sequel, Monsters University. Now let me tell you: Monsters, Inc, Pixar’s second release (only second!), was so heartfelt, touching and self-contained there was absolutely no reason—not chasing a muse, at least—to expand the universe any further. Oh, did I say sequel? My bad. Monsters University was a red-headed stepchild with herpes scars: a prequel. It’s one of the most odious tricks in Hollywood’s trick bag to separate the gullible from their money. Remember Star Wars, eps. 1-3? Uh-huh.) Since Pixar apparently prided its creative output on innovation and originality, why a sequel? Hell, why two?

I sense the Disney strong-arm. I’m not saying the studio directly laid any pressure on Pixar’s creative license. It’s not like the above films, no matter their flaws, had the stamp of a paw print on their digital drafting boards. Dinsey and Pixar usually have a very distinct signature, and WALL-E et al possessed that. But I feel behooved to mention—reheat, if you will—my masticating of John Carter a few months back. I made the argument that Carter came apart at the seams due in part to Disney meddling, protecting their investment instead of giving in to the director’s vision of a more organic S/F tale. The end result was indeed entertaining, but also stiff, protracted and the sticky fingerprints of how sh*t is supposed to go down at the House of Mouse. Disney Studios’ influence in production was rampant with Carter. Not the Disney Touch, the Disney Process. Unwavering and ultimately obsolete.

For years, decades even, that process worked. Disney was it. No one could touch them. And why not? Their animated features were amazingPinocchio, Snow White, hell even The Jungle Book were either cutting edge or hopelessly charming. Even their smaller fare like their Winnie The Pooh efforts were endearing and bore the unmistakeable Dinsey Touch. Audiences lapped it up, and other animators strove to imitate, never truly duplicate the grandeur of Disney’s animated adventures.

It should come as no surprise that despite the early rivalry and perceived acrimony Pixar had with Disney that comparisons would be made. And made they were; it was inevitable. The Disney Process was entrenched in the movie making industry. Even if one had never even seen a Disney film (hard to believe, but it must’ve happened. Kinda like sighting Sasquatch), its reputation preceded everything. It’s tough to argue against the possibility that Pixar followed that Process in making their films.

With Brave, that Process was keenly felt. There were similarities between Brave‘s delivery and Disney’s dyed-in-wool methodology. But it was kind of like comparing the styles of similar directors.

For example, consider the canons of Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemekis. Both have similar styles. They have unique signatures in their craft. We have JawsSchindler’s List and two Best Directing Oscars on one side, and Back To The Future, Forrest Gump and multiple snubs on the other. One influenced the other, and the other developed their own voice. It’s no different between Disney and Pixar. When you watch a Spielberg film, you know its a Spielberg film for its feel. The same with Zemekis. Disney has their Touch, borne from their Process, and Pixar has their spark. Both are similar, but have their own unique fingerprints.

Brave blurred the corners, and with curious results. Sure, the film was a success—as all Pixar films become—but it came at a cost. Be it following a “template” or Papa Walt’s ghost asserting itself, Pixar slipped some. Especially in the eyes of the critics, and some audiences, too.

As I have hammered home before many, many times, movies are made to make money. It’s a business first, and a creative outlet second. I’m willing to wager that if Disney wasn’t directly forcing Pixar’s hand with every other of their films in the past decade, their business acumen might have been. Sure, WALL-E, Ratatouille, Cars 2 and even Up had their fair share of merchandising—a large chunk of movie-made money—but I have a hard time believing said films were made with that in mind. At least, not directly in mind, if you catch my drift.

Disney is not just a studio. It’s a brand. They have heavy influence, beyond the silver screen (curious fact: Disney has the third largest fleet of ships in the world. The world. Only the US and UK naval fleets are larger. Think about that. Now stop). Such name-recognition has gravity. Pixar’d have to be pretty naive to ignore this. Maybe Disney didn’t apply any muscle against the once upstart rival, but my money is on that their presence was felt. The brand was in the air, and a rep had to be upheld. John Carter be damned. Same for Monsters U.

So now we have Brave. The spark at odds with the Process. And that Process is hard to escape when making an animated film, even including the studio that indoctrinated it.

Here’s a story. A few years back, Disney released and publicly announced its “last princess movie” Tangled, based on the tale of Rapunzel. I found the movie to be great, and a fine statement to usher in a new Process (I can be very naive). It was the last great Diz animated movie until Frozen rolled along. That being said, Frozen made liars of Disney. They couldn’t escape their Process, heist by their own petard.

Well, sort of. Tangled technically was the last animated princess movie. However it was followed by Frozen, a film not about princess, but two princesses. Loophole!

Maleficent had no princess…until the plot deemed it appropriate. But it wasn’t animated! Another loophole!

Brave under the Pixar banner featured a princess! But still it wasn’t technically a Disney movie! Um, loophole?

You smell a pattern forming here? Is this Process inevitable? Is there a brand being upheld? Does the presence spread? Unsure here on most fronts, but it does get one to wonder.

Yeah, I’m splitting hairs. So what? But I’m the barber here, and my point is this as before: Disney is a brand. It has a formula. It works, so praise the mouse and pass the tickets.

I again am willing to wager a pair of ears—not at first, but slowly and eventually—loomed over the production of Brave, radiating an omniscient presence…

Adolescence is seldom easy.

You’re regarded as a young adult, your personally maturing as does your physique. Approaching adulthood, yet still steeped in childish ways. You want—demand—to be respected as a mature individual, but you still gotta muck about in the woods chasing toads. You understand your responsibilities, you’d just rather have them on your own well-meaning but misguided terms. You’re a kid, just don’t let anyone call you that.

It’s even harder if you’re a princess. All that crapola wadded up and thrown into your petulant scowl on a daily basis. Despite your legacy.

Motherhood is never easy.

You’re responsible for not only escorting a life into this world, but also ensuring said life is brought up right. You must imbue this young person with both a sense of security as well as confidence and esteem. You must be sure that they want for nothing, but withhold any possible influence that may steer this young person down a wrong path. Yet in due course, you must unfurl your wings and let this darling child spreading their own wings and take flight, face risk. You must hold hard to the belief you did the best by them and pray that they will find a way in the world that sets a true aim.

It’s even harder if you’re a queen. All that regality dictates not only propriety, but to set an example. An example not only to your subjects, but to your family. Your legacy. And yes, to your petulant princess daughter.

Princess Merida (MacDonald) and Queen Elinor (Thompson) share similar ideals, but on completely different wavelengths. One pulls. The other pushes. And back again. And so forth. Merida demands to be her own person, on her own terms and for her own benefit. Elinor demands the respect a mother and a queen demands, in that order, for Merida’s benefit as well as hers. Neither side of this family dynamic seems to wish to weigh the vitalness of it all in the endgame.

It’s a bear of a problem…

As I was rambling on, Pixar felt like it was taking leave of its senses in fits and starts over the past ten years. I wasn’t saying that this was a conscious thing, though. Disney’s presence might have been felt, like someone staring at you from behind or that wafting from the back of the fridge, your long since forgotten about saved hunk of tuna melt glossed with gorgonzola or discovering what the fate became of your beloved hamster Fred.

Too much? Just driving the point home.

With Brave, Pixar took the big jump into a tried-and-true device that their parent company had utilized as their stock in trade since they invented it: they cut a princess movie.

True, hardly an original concept. The furthest from actually. Like I said, such a scenario has been Disney’s bread-and-butter as far back as their first, full-length animated feature, Snow White And The Seven Dwarves. Hell, Disney f*cking created the template. The same template every single animation feature since has more-or-less adhered to. And why not? It’s worked. To greater or lesser degrees. I suppose it was a matter of time that Pixar got hip to this idea.

Still, one can’t help but wonder, with Pixar’s recent scattershot (I’m gonna use that adjective a lot here) output that if their benefactor’s presence in the ether had a little bit of pull. True, the fairy tale aspect works wonders when done right, but you can only tell the same story so much until is grows threadbare. No matter how well the merch sells. I mean, even to today I see hordes of Merida childcrap being hawked at Target. At reduced prices sure, but then again I needed socks. So there.

Like I said, and with no shock, the princess story works when done well. Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, The Little Mermaid and not to mention the anime renditions Princess MononokeOh My Goddess! and Urusei Yatsura work great. All have comedy and tragedy (and to greater or lesser degrees), cool mystique and engaging characters paired with compelling storytelling. That’s the template, but when done poorly—and beyond just a faulty execution—derivative aping of a good, effective formula can at best be considered unoriginal and at worst insulting. Insulting to the story as well as the audience.

Before any further analysis, Brave is Pixar’s first foray into the princess story. It did have all the hallmarks of the template. We have a brave (duh) but vulnerable princess. We have a fantastic realm to explore (this time the highlands of Scotland, one might assume. Sure, it’s no Rivendell, but it’s sure is hella pretty). We got those tricky family dynamics. And we have the quest for fate. There’s even a bit of a King Lear analogy going on, so we got classic drama in effect. So roll camera already.

Brave possesses all the above qualities and aspects. And since the whole schtick has been overdone to death many times over already (“last princess movie.” Malarkey), an audience must wonder—especially beleaguered moms and dads—how many times can this tale be told? More over, how many times well?  Been there, done that. Get on with happily ever after.

We’ve come to rely on Pixar movies to elevate tired storytelling tropes of adventures and self-discovery into high entertainment and emotional investment. Brave is no different.

Here it comes.

However understanding the machinations of the princess tale—and doubtless Pixar does thanks to its benefactor—doesn’t mean a hell of whole lot if you follow the above template for rote. One would think that Pixar would have all its ducks in a row when it comes to creating a princess tale. It’s pretty easy when you think about it, and audiences already have certain expectations even if they’ve never even heard of Sleeping Beauty. It’s so saturated our collective pop culture consciousness its akin to never seeing an episode of Star Trek, but virtually everyone knows who Mr Spock is. Thank or blame Disney for this. So surely Pixar knows what to deliver.

And they did. All too well.

Brave, although gorgeous—Pixar had some new programming to try out, and in that they delivered. Big time—is a stock fairy tale. It even had actual fairies (okay, will-o’-the-wisps. Let’s not argue semantics). It has all the above criteria, and is delivered in a very bland, almost ham-fisted kind of way. The movie’s fairly predictable, as all princess stories are, but its the twists and turns the (hopefully compelling) characters follow that make the ride unique and fun. Such a tale shouldn’t be transparent dappled with a few clever touches. Brave was predictable in the worst way. I found myself internally demanding (cue Monty Python voice) “Get on with it!”

A big issue I took with Brave was beyond just the linear nature of the story with all its tips and tricks is it had no spark. It lacked the touch of a Pixar movie. In fact, it didn’t even feel like a Pixar movie. There wasn’t the usual je ne sais quoi here. Not only did Brave not feel like a Pixar film, it felt more like a (shudder) classicist Disney film. Sure, princesses are Disney’s goldmine, and they don’t necessarily hold the reigns ultra tight, but they do know their sh*t about such a thing. They kinda wrote the book and all. Some presence was felt.

Pixar’s made their mark either innovating or upending warhorses, not cowing to them. Brave follows the Disney playbook play by play. And a lot of it seems forced. Feels forced. I’m not going to blame Disney for placing a firm hand on Pixar’s shoulder here. Despite their presence was clearly felt, I doubt Brave was yielding to Disney standard princess story practices. One could make the argument after watching the movie that Pixar was trying to cut a tribute to said story. A nod to the classic storyline. But again I’m not sure; it feels like weak sauce.

A lot of it has to do with that “not feeling like a Pixar film.” What I mean is Brave‘s lack of or limited whimsy. Normally that’s a good thing, but Pixar’s been a whiz at turning the syrupy cutes on its ear. You know, those little tweaks in the script that otherwise might result in either bathos or insulting your intelligence. A good example of Pixar’s mad skillz? The final scene of Monsters, Inc or Carl attending Russell’s REDACTED in Up. Both could’ve been construed as squishy, but instead fulfilled the plots. Brave lacks this pseudo-whimsy. A lot of the emotional plot beats land squarely on the nose, no nuance.

This has a lot to do with the film’s pacing. Yeah, you’ve heard it before. This is my big gripe when it comes to enjoying movies: lack of smooth story flow. Brave comes across as so uneven and blatantly intrusive it feels rushed. The pace, as well as the action is very busy. It’s borderline frenetic. To be fair though, we at least have some of the always noted Pixar nuanced touches, but they fly by so fast they barely have time to register. It’s like the action comes so fast and hard you nary have a chance to breathe. Why was Brave in such a hurry, and to what end? It felt exhausting. Despite the kiddies mainlining Sour Patch Kids, doubts even here how they could pay attention.

About that—sugar rushes notwithstanding—halfway through my viewing of Brave, my previous opinions about following the Disneyesque princess tale rulebook almost note for note faded. There was a distinct tinkering in Brave that either was a bastardized “Pixar touch” or a distinct, almost forced statement that this movie was decidedly not a contemporary Disney thing. Brave quickly took a turn to create a feel that was more squarely aimed at grown-ups, as if rebuking the usual kiddie crowd, rejecting them.

The second act got very heavy very quick. We understood over 30 minutes that Merida and Elinor have very different agenda. Brave abruptly becomes a journey of understanding into something more dire. The tension escalates, sure, but so does the scary imagery and even the violence. Fessing up, I actually saw Brave first-run (remember my daughter’s unwavering pull?) back in 2o12, but remembered next to nothing of it until I scoured critical reviews online. The Standard was met this way, so onto the queue it went. I had my memory jogged by the time Brave‘s third act rolled around for the RIORI viewing. I remembered I heard screaming, not sounds of excitement but literal screaming coming from the kiddies during the fight scenes. It was akin to Ellison’s review of 1984’s Gremlins. Director Joe Dante called his movie “ET with teeth.” To wit, “fangs is more like it” Ellison noted. Hell, even had issues with Brave‘s intensities, the screeching kindergarteners in attendance notwithstanding.

A few more troubles of note. Relax, these are going to be technical issues, devoid of angry grizzlies.

For one (maybe more. Lost count here), everything in Brave comes across as very tightly controlled, almost measured. A good instance? Why does the humor feel so forced? I mean from the story’s aspect it’s truly not, but the overall feel says otherwise. With all the tension I spoke of above you need something to release the steam valve. But the jokes comes across as not quite organic. They’re almost expected, following in line with the rest of Brave‘s execution. This, like some of the other “softer” stuff in the movie seemed either out of a strict Disney blueprint or otherwise hackneyed. We had a pretty good mother/daughter subplot going on, but it was trite even though it had enough story to elevate it above average. But it was struggling to have its voice heard.

Come to think of it, a voice is what was sorely absent from Brave. I mentioned earlier that the animators at Pixar got their mitts on some new fancy-schmancy tech, which they unleashed with Brave. I said that movie was missing its usual studio flair. Perhaps one could make another argument that the animators were so enraptured with their new toy that stuff like plot, characterization and pacing were left behind in a case of future shock. I’ve already spoken at length about the dissonance Brave had when measured up to Pixar classics (or even Frozen for that matter). This might’ve been a not-so-simple case of form preceding function here. Just a thought. I don’t know.

Whew. Many theories abound. But what’s not theoretical about Brave is the aforementioned animation techniques. Not to be denied, Brave is a very, very pretty film. Even the bouncy scarlet locks of Princess Merida are enough to give the most wizened daddy pause. It’s near perfect CGI, and no denying here that even with a questionable script, the minds at Pixar know how to play some english on them keypads.

The technical aspects or Brave are nothing short of flawless. Forgetting its narrative hiccups for a moment, the gift of the animators at Pixar in creating lush, eye-popping visual paired with classic filmmaking skills are definitely not for want here. Pixar has always been quite adept at “camera work.” I say this in quotes because there are really no traditional cameras used here. It’s all a trick of the light, literally. Put aside any prejudices towards Brave‘s storyline and you’ll find it easy—natural—to enter into the verdant, sprawling world of Merida and Elinor. The forests, the water, the bawdy goings-on in the labyrinthine castle, all of it is a feast for the senses both visual and audio.

Speaking of audio, both Brave‘s sound editing and the soundtrack are awesome (maybe too much so at times, recalling the keening wails from dozens of misled kids). The effects and especially the music were so rich and think you could pour it over pancakes. It really, really enhanced the atmosphere of the whole movie, regardless of its faulty delivery. The sound filled the room, and not in any distracting way either. It was like a warm quilt, holding everything together. I felt—felt—my ears prick up over and over again across 90 minutes, immersed in the progression of a story that, like I said, wasn’t terribly special. The soundtrack tricked me into thinking Brave was. That’s some tech, and I can’t recall that ever happening to me with a movie before. Beyond the gee-whiz THX factor that is (sure my ears were bleeding when I saw Alien: Resurrection, but blame the projectionist falling asleep at the reel. Either that and the stupid plot).

Reeling it in, I feel the greatest issue with Brave as a movie is not its perceived attempt to create its own Disney-flavored princess tale. They tried and fell short. Hell, it happens to even the greatest of heroes, right Achilles? No. The biggest mistake I feel with Brave is that Pixar tried too hard. Maybe in perhaps trying to pay homage to Disney movies or by clear-cutting their own path Pixar lost the plot, figuratively and otherwise. That and the temptation of letting loose some new sparkly in a Bikini Atoll-fevered anticipation. Whatever the motivation, Brave went over stiff and ended up tasting stale, if not outright lame.

One final thing. Brave wasn’t as risky as most Pixar films. Following the template resulted in a stilted attempt to not reinvent the wheel per se, but seemingly deny all the stuff that’s made Pixar’s output so celebrated the past. At first it was just cutting cartoons out of pixels. That alone was enough to make folks flock to Toy Story back in the day. What keep them coming back for Monsters, Inc, A Bug’s Life, Finding Nemo and so on was about compelling stories and interesting characters. That and turning classic story tropes on their collective noggins. Pixar does family films, not exclusively kiddie fare. To succeed at that, you gotta take risks. You need to imbue some bitter with the sweet. You should engage in some thoughtful social commentary. You have to shoot Bambi’s mom once in a while. You know, like big, bad ol’ Diz did.

First you learn the rules. Then you break some. Pixar should tear a page from its own book before they drop another drippy sequel or something.

*applying Lewis Black’s growly voice*

“Can I use a swear word now?”

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? With a heavy heart, thy must relent it. Brave‘s not a bad movie. It’s just not a Pixar movie, if you smell my haggis.

Stray Observations…

  • A “will-o’-the-wisp” is traditionally a spirit that escorts the fallen into the afterlife. Just right for a kiddie flick, no?
  • “Feast yer eyes!”
  • Brief ass shots equal a PG rating, and not the violent fighting bears. Thank you, America.
  • “That’s my favorite part!”
  • Hard to believe all this craziness occurred over only two and a half days.
  • “Just remember to smile…”
  • My wife’s biggest issue with Brave was its violence (the knife thing was particularly—forgive the pun—pointed). Not to mention Merida trying (and succeeding) to change her REDACTED. Both were disappointing to the say the least and outright unsettling overall. Even the kid agreed, one of the mewling many at the multiplex then.
  • “Bring the tiny glasses.” Well, it is a big crowd.
  • Did anyone get the Inside Out reference above there? I was trying to be clever. Trying. Where y’all going?
  • “Baer!”

Next Installment…

There’s a massive earthquake ripping across the San Andreas Fault! Do you smell what them rocks are cooking?!?