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Sep 12

Pixar’s Brave (2012) vs. Disney’s Treasure Planet (2002): A Comparative Review

For the past seventeen years now, summer has—with a few exceptions during the venerable dream factory’s early years—meant one thing, and one thing only: the release of a new Pixar Animation Studios film. For the past three years, I have been able to share this annual occasion with my boyfriend. In fact, the very first film we ever saw together in theaters was Pete Docter and Bob Petersen’s incredibly charming Up (2009). Earlier this summer, the studio released Brave, directed by Brenda Chapman before being handed over to Mark Andrews. Taking place in Middle Age Scotland, Brave centers on Merida (Kelly Macdonald), a young princess who is expected to marry one of three possible suitors from her father King Fergus’ (Billy Connolly) allied clans. Unfortunately, Merida is intent on remaining single, a personal choice her mother, Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson), cannot understand and refuses to accept. As a result, the two are constantly bickering over the impending betrothal. Seeing no other possible solution to the disagreement, Merida purchases a magical spell from a mysterious, wood-dwelling witch—a spell designed to “change” her mother. Unfortunately, Elinor transforms not into a more indulgent parent, but into a brown bear. Once Elinor composes herself, she and her daughter escape into the forest, where they attempt to reverse the witch’s spell, all the while evading Mor’du, a ferocious black bear who prowls the Highlands.

A few evenings after watching Brave at our local cineplex, my boyfriend and I sat down—in our living room this time—to revisit Walt Disney Feature Animation’s Treasure Planet, directed by Ron Clements and John Musker, of The Little Mermaid (1989) and Aladdin (1992) fame. As you may gather from the title, Treasure Planet transposes the action from Robert Louis Stevenson’s earthbound classic into space. In Clements and Musker’s reimagining of the tale, Jim Hawkins (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a delinquent who comes into possession of a mysterious sphere. Toying around with it, the sphere projects a holographic map appearing to point the way to Treasure Planet, the purported hiding place of legendary pirate Captain Flint’s “loot of a thousand worlds.” Dr. Delbert Doppler (David Hyde Pierce), a dog-like friend of Hawkins’ mother, decides to finance an expedition to the planet. He hires Captain Amelia (Emma Thompson), a feline-esque alien, to man a spaceship christened the RLS Legacy, and a crew led by John Silver (Brian Murray), a cyborg cook. Sent down to work in the galleys during the interplanetary trip, Hawkins begins to bond with Silver. Little does Hawkins know, however, Silver and his crew are conspiring to commit mutiny, bent on stealing Flint’s treasure for themselves.

While watching Treasure Planet, it dawned on me that it and Brave share several similarities. Both films are considered by critics to be two of Disney and Pixar’s (respectively) weakest efforts. Further, both films feature at their core a relationship between a child and a parent or parental figure, and present the audience with a backstory that either informs or fuels the principle storyline. (Incidentally, the two films also feature voice-work by the talented Emma Thompson.) Comparing the two films, however, it becomes evident that Treasure Planet succeeds where Brave fails: that is, in the all-important areas of character and backstory development. Indeed, I believe that Treasure Planet, whatever its shortcomings, is undeservedly underappreciated. While Brave is not nearly as incompetent as critics have made it out to be (see, for example, Berardinelli, 2012), it nevertheless remains artistically wanting, due perhaps to the controversial mid-production directorial swap.

Some critics have noted similarities between the plot of Brave and that of Disney’s Brother Bear (Blaise & Walker, 2003). While it is true that both stories bear superficial resemblance to each other—pun half-intended!—Brave and Treasure Planet share similar foundations, as previously explained. As such, I choose to compare these two particular films, to explore some of the many elements that contribute to not only competent, but also satisfying character and backstory development.

Character Development

Having escaped their castle following Elinor’s nighttime transformation from an elegant royal into a giant animal, Merida and her mother take shelter under a boulder in a nearby forest. At this point in the film, the mother-daughter pair have two issues to resolve. The first issue is the one that brought Merida to inadvertently turn her mother into a giant animal in the first place: Merida and Elinor must learn to communicate. Neither has ever listened to the other, and been willing to do so without judging or attempting to change the other’s opinion. This is conveyed in an especially clever sequence at the beginning of the film, which cuts between the two characters as they express their frustration with one another. The second issue directly results from Merida’s actions: Elinor must learn to trust her daughter again. The mother-daughter relationship has suffered a serious breach: Merida knowingly put her mother’s safety in danger by purchasing a spell from a strange woman, and casting it upon her. Along with learning to trust her daughter again, Elinor may even have to accept some level of responsibility for bringing her to commit such a desperate act.

Under the boulder in the forest, Merida tentatively attempts to extricate a smile from her mother. A forlorn look in her eyes, Elinor turns around, resting her head on the ground before presumably falling asleep. What is she feeling? Disappointment and hurt, probably. I would assume some sadness and anger as well, however deeply buried. Unfortunately, this is the last we encounter of Elinor’s subjective experience. In contrast, we are able to infer from Merida’s persistent efforts to reverse the spell that she is guilt-ridden, that she deeply regrets what she has done to her mother.

Merida and Elinor’s relationship begins to be mended the following day, before any of the aforementioned issues start to be addressed. (If you think no “family film” could ever successfully deal with such complex matters, see how Pixar’s existentially astute Toy Story trilogy handles the prospect of death.) The best that can be said of Merida and Elinor’s reconciliation is that it begins to happen over one of two lovely songs by Scottish folk-singer Julie Fowlis. Once the song is over, however, Merida and Elinor’s relationship, apparently considered salvaged, takes second place to the spell’s urgent reversal. The key to Merida and Elinor’s relational troubles was to learn to communicate, to listen to their frustrations regarding each other without any attempt at contradicting, and to become more flexible, to genuinely want to address the other’s concerns. Yet, the two fail to have an honest and heartfelt conversation at any point in the film. Indeed, we never get a sense that Merida and Elinor have actively worked through their relational troubles. Sure, they manage to overcome a magical spell together, but unencumbered teamwork is not the same as open communication. Because of this, the resolution at the end of the film comes across as premature, and rings somewhat false. Because Merida and Elinor do not deserve their reconciliation, so to say, we are not convinced it will last.

Hawkins’ father left him and his mother when he was a boy. His dedicated mother has been raising him since, but not without difficulty: Hawkins tends to misbehave and get into trouble with the law. He has stagnated: something is holding him back from living a rewarding, prosocial life. When he meets Silver, he is at first suspicious: the creature that handed him the projecting sphere outside his mother’s tavern warned him to “beware of the cyborg.” Hawkins also comes to resent Silver, who is given authority over him by Captain Amelia. As time goes by, however, the boy begins to invest in the cyborg as a son would his father. Silver encourages him to map his own course, and tells him that he is confident he will grow up to achieve great things. We sense this is the first time Hawkins hears anything of the sort. When Hawkins learns that Silver is a manipulative crook that will say and do anything to get what he wants, he is crushed. The cyborg subsequently attempts to make amends, but the boy refuses to make peace. Quite likely, Hawkins’ disappointment is similar to that felt the day his father left. Angered, he seeks to find the treasure before Silver can get his hands on it.

In the end, Hawkins comes to terms with the person of Silver: he may be imperfect, but, despite his limitations, he remains a good person. Through his relationship with Silver, we feel Hawkins has been able to process his unresolved feelings toward his father. Although the film chooses not to explore this, it is even possible he has forgiven him. Regardless, it appears Hawkins is now at peace with the memory of his father, and that his complicated feelings toward him will, we can rest assured, no longer hinder his progress toward a more satisfying existence.

As is evident in my summary of Hawkins and Silver’s relationship, we see a lot of it. We are not left with too many questions regarding its nature or progression, allowing us to invest in it fully. Indeed, there are at least four meaningful conversations between Hawkins and Silver inserted into the story, including one that evolves into a refreshingly inspired musical montage showing the two characters bonding. (As alluded to previously, Brave also resorts to a musical montage to illustrate the budding relationship between its protagonists; this sequence, however, simply comes across as a lazy shortcut.) These interactions are the pillars of Treasure Planet: when all else fails to impress, it is Hawkins and Silver’s relationship that allows the film to remain aloft. At the same time, the two characters’ experiences regarding each other retain some vagueness, so that there is enough room left onscreen for our own interpretations, a tactic that further promotes audience investment. (Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, 2012, pulls its audience in using similar means, only to achieve a more cerebral kind of investment, by proposing religious and philosophical questions to ponder, without ever telling us how the characters are themselves answering these.)

Backstory Development

In Brave, Elinor attempts to convince Merida to conform with what is expected of her by telling her daughter the story of four princes who were to have their kingdom evenly split between them. Wanting the kingdom all to himself, one of them ultimately plunges it into chaos. Later in the film, we learn that this story is more than mere didactic fiction: Mor’du’s very origins can be traced back to the events relayed within it. Because we are not told enough about the princes and the fall of their kingdom, and because Mor’du is so rarely talked about and makes so few appearances, the legend feels appended to Merida’s story more than an integral part of it. During the film’s climax, we are even asked to empathize with the insurgent prince. Given we have been told so little about his past, not to mention his evolution since the rampage of his own kingdom, this is asking too much.

In Treasure Planet, the legend of Captain Flint and his loot of a thousand worlds is seamlessly integrated into the main narrative. Not only does the legend propel the main narrative, the main narrative also elucidates some of the legend’s mysteries in ways that further the requirements of the plot. It is this mutual relation between backstory and principal storyline that contributes to the successful integration of the former into the latter. It is not for nothing the movie is titled after the treasure’s mythical location!

Final Thoughts

While Treasure Planet handles character development and the device of backstory with a deft hand, Brave falters in both areas. From a technical standpoint, however, Brave upstages Treasure Planet in many respects. Pixar’s latest effort features beautifully rendered scenery of the Scottish countryside, and richly immersive environments. Character animation is also detailed and fluid. That being said, some of the character designs (e.g., the housemaid) come across as a little generic and could have benefited from further development. I did nonetheless appreciate the Miyazaki-esque quality of the more original designs: indeed, the wisps, the witch and her crow could very well have escaped from the parallel world in Studio Ghibli’s Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi (2001). (Enrico Casarosa’s short La Luna, which plays before Brave, also draws from the Miyazaki universe: for example, the sequence where the boy is suspended in midair.)

Despite making some appealing use of Deep Canvas technology, which allows background artists to “paint” moving sets, Treasure Planet features a more often than not distracting combination of hand-drawn and computer-generated technology, taking one’s focus away from the story. Still, the film manages to fashion a unique and imaginative world blending futuristic elements with old-world ones. Take, for example, the RLS Legacy, a rocket-propelled galleon. (This blending of styles was used to similar effect in Joss Whedon’s Firefly (2002-2003), a fantasy television series with a western motif.)

While definitely showing strengths in both areas, Treasure Planet does not handle everything to do with characters and narrative perfectly. For example, the progression of the story is at times encumbered by an overreliance on sight gags, and a reluctance to slow down during moments that do not involve Hawkins and Silver. Treasure Planet also appears to fear silence, as evinced by a crewmember that speaks “Flatula” (i.e., in farts) and the loud-mouthed robot B.E.N. (Martin short). Still, the film at least feels complete. Conversely, because Brave weaves, but never fully brings together, various character arcs and narrative strands, the film feels somewhat unfinished. In a way, viewing Brave is akin to watching an early, in-progress reel bound for further reworking.

Brave can be forgiven for mishandling its backstory. In fact, I can forgive a movie a lot, even a generally awkwardly told story or substandard dialogue. Poor visuals, even. I am only able to do this, however, if I am brought to care about the characters and their relationships. For me to care, I must be given the opportunity to eavesdrop, as an audience member, on private moments that reveal to me the inner landscape of each character, or, to keep the metaphor going, the border where two characters’ inner lands meet. But because Brave fails to provide its audience with such moments, I am less inclined to revisit it, despite other aspects of the film mostly meeting my expectations. Treasure Planet, on the other hand, successfully integrates such moments into its narrative. Thus, despite its many problems, the film remains, at the very least, emotionally satisfying. And so, I cut it some slack and willingly revisit it with pleasure.

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