100 min., rated PG.
Pixar's track record has been close to spotless for lovingly creating warm, witty, soulful animated films accessible to families, but obviously not all of their efforts can be grand slams. Last June's "Cars 2" was an anomaly in quality coming from Pixar, but entertained little squirts with A.D.D. anyway and upped tie-in merchandise sales. To much dismay, it felt more like a manic product and a mere shadow of its cleverly enjoyable 2006 predecessor. So after Pixar's first forgettable, anonymous dud and instead of laying another egg for their lucky 13th, "Brave" is a hearty, entertaining winner that shouldn't be slighted. Granted, the film might not be an instant classic, but has special qualities that should speak to anyone with a mother.
In the Scottish kingdom of DunBroch, the ginger-tressed Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald) is a princess but headstrong and handy with a bow and arrow. Being the first-born daughter of bear-hunting King Fergus (Billy Connolly) and Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson), she is expected to be betrothed. Elinor prepares Merida for a gathering of would-be suitors, all unattractive and less than graceful, that will compete for the fair maiden's hand. But instead of being a dutiful lady, Merida chooses archery and bests all of them by shooting three targets herself. Since Merida just wants her freedom, she destroys part of a sewn family tapestry, and as a result, an infuriated Elinor scolds Merida and throws her bow into a fire pit. Riding off on horseback into the nearby woods, Merida then follows a trail of Will O' the Wisps—blue-glowing fairies that lead to one's fate—that takes her to the hut of a wood-carving witch (Julie Walters). Desperate to make her mother change her mind about an arranged marriage, Merida bargains with the witch for a spell inside of a cake. Once she gives the cake to Elinor as a peace offering, the transformation spell works its magic. However, the brave lass regretably gets a lot more than she bargains for, and will have to mend her relationship with her mother before the second sunrise, or the spell will remain permanent.
Directed by Mark Andrews (co-writer of 2012's "John Carter"), Brenda Chapman (co-director of 1998's "The Prince of Egypt"), and Steve Purcell (who all co-wrote with Irene Mecchi), "Brave" counts as Pixar's first princess-themed fairy tale. It's refreshing to find a Disney animated film not built on villains or talking animals, but a mother-daughter relationship and an appealingly plucky heroine defined by her arrow-slinging, not a handsome prince (or an oafish Scotsman). From an emotional standpoint, Elinor and Merida's relationship rift rings true, and rings even truer once the daughter regrets the spell cast against her loving mother. The story itself is less inspired, cobbling together elements from 2010's instant Disney classic "Tangled" and 2003's lackluster Disney-animated "Brother Bear," but takes a surprisingly unusual route and musters up enough emotional pull. When the film isn't rousing and heartfelt, it's also funny, relying on bear-centric hijinks, Merida's prankish, ravenous triplet brothers (their shadow-puppet distraction with a roast chicken on a stick is a highlight), and the hulking, story-spinning King Fergus (who, given the PG rating, get to bare their naked bums at separate times). The witch also has an amusingly clever pseudo-voicemail by way of her cauldron. That said, "Brave" does have less sharp comedy writing than previous Pixar creations, but laughs are still earned.
Visually, it's what we've come to expect from the standard-setting animation studio. They haven't rested on their laurels but lavish in stunning photorealism. The land of Scotland is a wonderful location for those animators to vividly realize, from the medieval castle to the green forest. In particular, Merida's firey, free-flowing hair looks gorgeous and detailed on screen that it must've taken its own computer software. Rambunctiously voiced by Macdonald, Merida is spunky, willful, and independent without being a petulant brat. And her own thick Scottish accent is perfect. As voiced by Thompson, Merida's mother Elinor is never a domineering ice queen, but rather a warm and lovely mother who only wants the best for her rebellious daughter. When Mama Bear is literally transformed into a bear, her ungainly posture and delicate holding of her paws is heartbreakingly sweet.
Not quite up there with the best (all three "Toy Story" films, "Finding Nemo," "The Incredibles," "Ratatouille," and "WALL-E") nor does it achieve "Up's" high emotional resonance, "Brave" is most definitely a marked improvement over "Cars 2." While those that have kept up with all of the studio's work may needlessly compare this one to the rest, it's an engaging, charming, and bravely feminist tale in its own right. There's something to be said for an animated film that doesn't push back feminism and womanhood but brings it to the fore and celebrates it. Move over Katniss Everdeen, there's an equally brave but sassier ginger in Scotland.
Grade: B +