It's been a good couple of months for strong-minded women wielding medieval weaponry: "The Hunger Games," "Snow White and the Huntsman" and now Pixar's "Brave." Set in the Scottish highlands of, oh, a thousand years ago, this dark and lovely yarn borrows from old world folktales, and more than a bit, too, from Hayao Miyazaki's heroine-driven animated adventures.
Although it takes its time getting there, "Brave" turns into a powerful story of transformation (literal and figurative), as the young princess Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald) sets out to rescue her mother (Emma Thompson) from a witch's spell that has turned her into a bear. If Merida doesn't break the spell within two sunrises' time, Mom is going to be very big and
And the queen's husband, Fergus (Billy Connolly), absolutely loathes bears - he lost his leg to one, and has made it his mission to vanquish the ursine set from his land.
Although "Brave" is satisfying and spirited and laced with humor (haggis jokes, kilt jokes), it doesn't quite mark a return to form for Pixar following the digital house's disappointing 12th feature, "Cars 2." The company's founder, Toy Story director John Lasseter, has been running his operation and parent company Disney's animation division, and "Brave" feels more like an aesthetic mix of the two camps. It's less exhiliratingly wacky, less fun, more tradition-bound, predictable.
Still, a lot of heart has gone into this affair, which is rife with Celtic-inspired music and montages of the red-headed Merida traipsing across moors, climbing cliffs, riding horses, shooting her bow and arrows. When her mother (still in human form) announces that it's time to consider suitors for her betrothal, Merida wants none of it - and who can blame her? The scions of the Dingwall, MacGuffin and MacIntosh clans are a buffoonish lot, and why should a princess be forced to marry, anyway?
It's no accident that the males in "Brave" - from the barrel-chested father figure Fergus to the lords who come a-courtin' to the tiny redheaded triplets who are Merida's sibs - are rendered in an old-school, cartoonish style, while the mother and daughter at the center are more elegant, noble, humanlike. This is a tale of female empowerment, after all, of bonds between women, of independence and determination. Men? They're clowns.
And when the child and the bear are off in the woods, looking to undo their curse, it's the daughter who takes charge, teaching her mother how to catch fish in her unfamiliar clawed paws, in that terrifying maw. And Merida is fearless, and loving.
"Brave" shares its directing credits three ways:
"La Luna," one of this year's Oscar-nominated animated shorts, precedes "Brave." There's a saucer-eyed little boy, a couple of geezer fishermen, and a ladder to the moon. Pixar magic and pixie dust.
Directed by Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman, codirected by Steve Purcell. With the voices of Kelly Macdonald, Emma Thompson, Billy Connolly, and Robbie Coltrane. Distributed by Walt Disney Pictures.
Running time: 1 hour, 40 mins.
Parent's guide: PG (violence, scares, adult themes)
©2012 The Philadelphia Inquirer
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