Brave is fearless. The first Pixar movie with a heroine at its center, the story tells of Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald), a red-haired princess who wields a mean bow and arrow and yearns to do something with her life other than being betrothed. But her mother Elinor (Emma Thompson) will have none of that talk. “This is what you’ve been preparing for your whole life,” she implores the rebellious girl.
Merida’s father, King Fergus (Billy Connolly), is preparing to host three neighboring clans to decide which of their princes will marry his daughter. But Merida devises a clever way out of the ceremony and commits an act that creates a huge rift between the girl and her mother.
This description might make Brave sound awfully serious and somber, but the movie is just the opposite. Directed by Pixar first-timers Mark Andrews, Brenda Chapman and Steve Purcell, Brave has a manic, almost daffy energy and sense of humor. Merida has three little mischievous triplet brothers who constantly run around the edges of the movie, playing jokes and pulling pranks beneath the main storyline. Fergus, who lost a leg in a fight with a ferocious bear-monster, is a jovial, oblivious man, a kind king who loves the company of his family and obsesses only over paying back the animal that maimed him.
Beneath the story’s feminist slant, Brave harbors tinges of fairy tales and Celtic legends: Like Game of Thrones, it is set in a medieval land where magic no longer exists and no one believes in it, except in tiny, secret corners. As usual for Pixar, Brave is impeccably designed — Merida’s visit to the forest hut of an unusually enterprising witch (Julie Walters) is a gorgeous piece of animation — and the movie builds to the sort of thunderously exciting climax that has become another of the studio’s staples.
And here’s the best part: You don’t know what this movie is really about yet. This is not another of those stories in which a teenage girl must act like a tomboy in order to overcome the sexist traditions of her culture. There isn’t even a villain to conquer. Brave takes a huge risk by priming you for a certain sort of narrative, then suddenly sending the plot into a radically different direction with one swift, astonishing scene. If the idea hadn’t worked, the movie would have imploded.
Distributor Walt Disney Pictures has done a stellar job of giving you a taste of the tone and feel of the film through its advertising without spoiling the narrative’s central conceit. Animated films, like many fairy tales, rarely do much with birth mothers other than kill them off (for more on this, see Finding Nemo or Bambi or Cinderella or Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs — the list is endless). One of the surprises in Brave is that Queen Elinor is as central a character as her daughter. At heart, this is a thoughtful meditation on parenthood, specifically the often-quarrelsome bond between daughters on the cusp of coming of age and mothers who want to mold their children in their own image, believing it is for the best. The fact that Brave also happens to be a thrilling, funny adventure almost feels like a bonus.
Voices: Kelly Macdonald, Billy Connolly, Emma Thompson, Julie Walters, Robbie Coltrane, Craig Ferguson.
Directors: Mark Andrews, Brenda Chapman, Steve Purcell.
Screenwriters: Mark Andrews, Steve Purcell, Brenda Chapman, Irene Mecchi.
Producer: Katherine Sarafian.
A Walt Disney Pictures release. Running time: 100 minutes. Brief violence, some scary images. Opens Friday June 22 at area theaters.