Yes, many people are already writing their Top 10 movie lists for 2012. We're saving ours for the last week of the year, but while we wait for this full, rich, and weird movie year to end, we're looking back at certain highlights and lowlights. Today: We look at a financially successful movie, a legitimate hit, that we think is horrible and absolutely did not deserve to be a hit.
(Note: If you haven't seen Brave and don't want to know any plot spoilers, don't read this.)
Pixar has been so good for so long that it's tempting to give the studio a pass when its latest effort isn't quite up to par. That's what I did with Cars 2, but after two consecutive unworthy efforts, I worry that the Pixar brain trust's brilliant run is finally at an end. It's not that Brave is an abomination—it's loads better than that Ice Age sequel. But this is the first time that Pixar has put out an obviously undercooked movie. Sure, it looks gorgeous, but story-wise it's just a mess.
Brave is about a Scottish princess named Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald), who, we learn from the outset, isn't one of those typical Disney princesses who waits around for her prince to rescue her. No, sir, she rides horses, is a hell of an archer, and enjoys sassing her parents, the king and queen. But when her mother (Emma Thompson) insists that she become more ladylike and select between the kingdom's many moronic suitors, Merida instead decides to run off, bumping into a weird old woman in the woods who grants her wish that her mother change. Unfortunately for Merida (and the queen), the wish is totally twisted in an annoyingly convoluted way: Her mom is "changed" into a bear. That old lady is just a damn jerk.
There are two reasons to begrudgingly respect Brave. For one, it's one of just two movies among the top 10 highest-grossing films of 2012 that's actually an original story. (The other is the one Will writes about today.) And this is the first of Pixar's 13 full-length films to feature a female main character. But neither of those attributes absolves a movie whose comedic sense is depressingly slapstick-y and whose halfway-point twist turns the story hopelessly cutesy. For years, Pixar has been deservedly lauded for its focus on story, which makes it all the more frustrating that Brave is felled by what Roger Ebert called the Idiot Plot: If Merida simply explained to everyone in the kingdom that her mother has been transformed into a scary-looking bear, most of the film's second half wouldn't even need to happen. But because the filmmakers need to come up with a plot complication that forces Merida and her mom to understand one another, we have to go through a lot of wacky hijinks to get to an emotional ending that would have been a hundred times more heart-wrenching if everything leading up to it hadn't seemed so forced.
Despite lukewarm reviews, Brave was still a huge hit. That isn't the worst news: If Brave had tanked, then the takeaway for most people in Hollywood would have been "Don't make movies starring ladies unless she's Katniss." But Brave's success is hardly a triumph for "The Pixar Way." For all of the movie's vague notions about Merida's girl-power ethos, she's more of an attitude than a character, lacking the soul of Wall-E or Woody or Remy. Heck, she's not even the most interesting or progressive female character that Disney gave us this year: Wreck-It Ralph's Vanellope von Schweetz may just be a "glitch," but she's proudly herself, rejecting other people's labels and just being her own entertainingly snotty, sweet self. She could teach Merida a thing or two.
It makes sense that Seth MacFarlane's Ted was a big hit. It had a sure-fire premise—dirty-talking teddy bear—and a built-in fanbase from Family Guy, and it filled a key niche in any summer, the bro-dude R-rated comedy. (See also: 2011, The Hangover Part Two; 2010, The Other Guys; 2009, The Hangover.) It had a well-known male lead and an attractive female lead.
It even had the rhythms of a comedy. Seth MacFarlane—who, I remind you, is hosting the freaking Oscars this year—puts the beats in the right places, the same way the hack standup comic at your local two-drink-minimum can nail the right syllable emphasis for his cracks about airline peanuts. I didn't predict it would be a hit, but I should have. It hit all the easy notes.
But that's the thing: The easy notes are the only notes Ted hit. I have nothing against its crassness. Comedy that doesn't offend someone is sort of missing the point; you might as well pull a quarter out of someone's ear. But offensiveness is the only trick MacFarlane has in his bag. Ted isn't invested in anything other than its own anus. Everyone, on screen and off, is an object of snotty, superficial ridicule, thunderbolts tossed down at an anthill. McFarlane thinks everything is stupid just because it is.
Fourth-grade humor can be terrific, cleansing, even elevating. I'm not sure I've roared harder in years than I did while watching Azamat's balls vigorously pummeling Borat's face. But you need to sense that someone other than a fourth grader is in charge.
Great comedies bring you along with them; mean little numbers like this one shut you out. Even The Hangover, which didn't necessarily have the most likable threesome at its center, made sure to humanize its characters, gave them a certain patheticness and relateability that let you know they weren't supposed to be better than you. After the bluster, they were just schmoes like the rest of us.
But Ted hammered everything but itself. The rest of the world—gays, minorities, women, oh, especially women—was the problem, not anyone involved with Ted. The movie sat back on the couch, taking potshots but never taking part in anything itself. It didn't have the energy to be a real movie, which made its rather insane attempts at the end to get "mushy" all the more ridiculous.
Listen: If you're the sort of person who loves Ted—who thinks I'm taking a movie about a teddy bear who curses "too seriously"—I'm not going to convince you. I'll confess to putting more thought into the movie than the movie itself does. Why is that fact somehow my fault? I'm proud of my review. You should read it again. But if you have decided simply to laugh when you are cued to laugh, or because MacFarlane has trotted out some generational pop culture touchstone, pointed at it and said, "Look! Remember this?" ... I don't think we're going to find much middle ground.