Can Brave help Pixar make a comeback at the Oscars this year?

I know that may sound strange to say about a company that has won the Animated Feature AcademyPixar Brave Oscars Award an unprecedented six times — including four times in a row between 2007-2010 — and been nominated eight of the nine times it has been eligible since the category was established in 2001. (Of Pixar’s previous 12 films, Toy Story, Toy Story 2 and A Bug’s Life came before.) It even managed two Best Picture noms along the way. Who else can boast of that kind of track record? But last year, the Oscar nomination streak in the Ani category came to screeching halt with Cars 2, a movie that also bottomed out with the critics, managing only a 38% fresh score at Rotten Tomatoes, where the company had been accustomed to rating in the high 90s — at or near the top of the pack of all the year’s releases. In fact, out of all Pixar films released before Brave, the only movie to score below a 92 on RT was the original Cars, which garnered a still-respectable 74% fresh score. Brave stands right now at 75% fresh, good by most standards but still the smallest number for a Pixar movie outside the two Cars movies.

Will it matter? Its smash $66 million haul in opening-weekend boxoffice certainly was heartening, if underwhelming, to some analysts, as Deadline reported today. They seem to unrealistically expect the moon where Pixar is involved, even though Brave marked the studio’s remarkable 13th No. 1 opening out of 13. Its ‘A’ Cinemascore audience-satisfaction rating is also a big plus in carrying momentum forward. But is the bloom off the Oscar rose as far as the animation committee that chooses nominees?

Last year there were five nominees instead of the usual three. Yet Cars 2 still managed to miss the cut, with two obscure indie toons — Chico & Rita and A Cat In Paris, from a tiny company called GKids — getting the slots instead, leaving a Pixar entry out in the cold for the first time. (The company’s animated short La Luna, which is playing in front of Brave, did land a nom in its category.) Is this the beginning of a trend, a feeling that Pixar has had enough Oscar glory? Have they become the Goliath of animation ready to be slayed by all the underdog Davids out there? Or is it simply that some voters, like many critics, did not love Cars 2, making it just a small bump in the road to be corrected by a “comeback” Brave nomination this year?

When you attain the unparalled success of a Pixar, it can breed contempt. And detractors are out there still gunning. “I just don’t get it. It seemed full of platitudes”, one top studio executive, who will have a film competing for that animated Oscar, told me this morning. “Brave was good but it is like a poor sister compared to something like The Incredibles or Ratatouille. It’s not groundbreaking at all, and that’s what I expect from Pixar”.

A person closely associated with Brave strongly disagrees and isn’t worried, saying industry screenings have gone exceptionally well (although admitting that last weekend’s official Academy Brave showing, held in the morning, drew only about 300 people — “but about 200 of them were older and without kids and that was a good sign for the film at that hour”. That group also stayed for a Q&A with the film’s creators and seemed to respond strongly, at least so I am told by others who were there).

The striking animation alone should probably be enough to guarantee an animation nomination this year, although not land it in the kind of Best Picture territory enjoyed by Up and Toy Story 3. In fact, some of it might be lost in 3D, which tends to darken the picture by about 15%, and Brave is already dark in many spots. In 2D the attention to detail really pays off (the filmmakers spent two research trips to Scotland where the film is set, trying to get everything just right). But it was the story on which they worked hardest. “Creative differences” led to a dismissal of the film’s original sole director Brenda Chapman, although she retains a directing credit with Mark Andrews, who took over the herculean task of reshaping the movie and getting it ready for release in only 18 months (he also was a co-screenwriter). Last week after a screening of the film, I talked to Andrews and producer Katherine Sarafian about the challenges of getting the movie made under difficult circumstances.

“It was not easy. The biggest challenges at Pixar are always the stories,” Sarafian said. “We want really original stories that come from the hearts and minds of our filmmakers. We take years in crafting the story and improving  it and changing it, throwing things out that aren’t working and adding things that do work. All of that  is just the jumping off point for the technology and how we are going to make this happen”.

For Andrews the Pixar method is the best model in the business. “It’s great. It’s fun. I’ve worked in a lot of studios but this is the first one run by the artists. They understand the process is an organic and difficult  process, one of trial and failure.  That’s what we do. We’re  trying to change lead into gold and everytime we manage to change lead into gold we say to ourselves, ‘wow, how did we do that?’ , ” he said adding that from Chapman’s original pitch  (inspired by her young daughter) to the finished film it was about seven years of work. Two years were spent just developing the technology for lead character Merida’s hair alone. “I am pleased to work at a place that does push the boundaries and makes animation not just for kids, but adults too,” he said.

Andrews also defended the darker , scarier tone of some of the film comparing it to Disney classics  that didn’t stint when it came to sometimes frightening images. “John Lasseter likes to quote Walt Disney when he said ‘ we make films for kids from 6 to 60’.  We did think  ‘it it too violent, are we going to worry about our audience?’  But when you water things down  for our kids you are doing a disservice. You’re in good hands with Pixar. It’s not blood and guts streaming on to the screen , but it is properly thrilling. Just look at Pinnochio, Dumbo, Bambi. We are right in a long line of very damaging therapy for children that’s meaningful and impactful, ” he laughed.

Sarafian added,”Brave is quite different and we were aware it does explore these darker tones and themes but it’s a cautionary tale. We were inspired by Grimm’s fairy tales.”

Stay through the credits and you will notice the movie has been dedicated to Pixar co-founder Steve Jobs. “It was a joint decision between us  the filmmakers and our executive team lead by John Lasseter and Ed Catmull who were co-founders of the studio with Steve Jobs and it really became a matter of ‘how could we not?’  We miss him so much. He was so much a part of every creative endeavor we’ve done. He’s responsible for the existence of our studio and all the wonderful things we have to work with as a studio,” said Sarafian. “Steve was involved  in the earliest stages of Brave. In fact  he saw the reels , he made notes. He was very, very excited  we were making this movie. We hoped he’d be proud of the way it turned out and we’re disappointed he didn’t get to see the final film. We’re very honored to be able to dedicate it to him.”