This 13th animated feature from the Pixar studio is somehow the first to feature a female protagonist.
As Pixar has taken Disney's place as king of cartoon movies, so this could be a corrective to Disney's princess fixation — even though it, too, is about a princess of sorts.
Merida (voiced by Kelly MacDonald) is the energetic, red-maned teen daughter of Fergus (Billy Connolly) and Elinor (Emma Thompson), rulers of a semi-realistically grubby Scottish kingdom made up of four once-warring tribes.
The marketing for the film, which features Merida aiming an arrow across her trusty bow, suggests a girl's adventure story, and Brave is that to a degree. But even more so it's a mother-daughter story, something hinted at from the outset, with a lovely bit of parental playtime with Elinor in Merida's post-toddler past.
A skilled archer, Merida defies custom during a ceremony in which the eldest sons from other tribes compete for her hand in marriage. As the first born of her own tribe, she throws herself into the competition, essentially competing for her freedom, and besting the boys. The film is rooted in a disagreement between Merida and Elinor about the proper behavior of a princess ("a princess does not chortle") and the importance of this marriage custom.
When Merida is in joyful motion — riding through the countryside on her steed, launching arrows at targets, climbing a rock formation to dip her head under an adjacent waterfall, or just swiping sweets from the kitchen to feed her rambunctious trio of little brothers — the film has a nice energy. But the threat posed to this freedom by unwanted pressure to marry is eventually overtaken by even more pressing matters.
The unexpected plot twist involving glowing Will of Wisps that lead one to his or her fate, a magic spell, bears, and some potentially scary scenes of changing parental behavior takes Brave into weirder territory than the Pixar norm, as if the company's aesthetic is morphing into the dream-logic world of Japanese animation master Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away, Howl's Moving Castle).
And yet, with all this going on, this good film feels a little disappointing. With four screenwriters and three directors, it has a committee feel. And the film's vision isn't as strong or its emotions as deeply felt as such Pixar standouts as Finding Nemo, Ratatouille, Up, or Wall-E.
Those films felt original even as they sometimes invoked other material. But Brave is held earthbound, in part, by its fairy-tale familiarity — the princess concept, a witch, a spell, and the potentially dangerous misunderstandings that ensue adding up to a "be careful what you wish for" cautionary tale. It's somewhat disappointing that the studio's first girl's story couldn't completely break from the princess/fairy-tale paradigm.
But maybe Brave also feels disappointing because, as worthy as it is, the film is upstaged by its opening act. The seven-minute short La Luna, a Best Animated Short Film Oscar nominee earlier this year, is playing before Brave and has all the magic we equate with the best of Pixar. A whimsical coming-of-age fable about a young boy taken to work by his father and grandfather for the first time, where he gradually negotiates familial example en route to asserting his individuality, it's a poetic little wonder of a film.
Opening Friday, June 22nd