Pixar is long overdue for a feature with a strong female character at its center. Now that she's arrived, it's clear that she deserves better.
"Brave" is beautiful to look at, as you would expect given the technical and artistic standard the animation behemoth has set. Set in the wilds of Scotland, the company's 13th feature is full of lush, green forests and dramatic, rolling hills, all of which appears even more idyllic bathed in a delicate, mystical sunlight.
Our heroine, the feisty and free-spirited Princess Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald), has a finely detailed mane of long, red curls that look so bouncy and soft, they'll make you want to roll around in them, then maybe take a little nap. And the story begins promisingly enough with our heroine — an avid archer — leaping onto her valiant steed and taking a thunderous ride through the countryside, expertly hitting her targets without missing a beat.
She's obviously a character with a mind of her own, one who has no apprehension about breaking the rules — which is why it's such a shame that the film itself feels so old-fashioned and safe. The script, credited to co-directors Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman as well as Steve Purcell and Irene Mecchi, revisits several familiar Disney character types and themes: a princess in a long-ago kingdom who pays an ill-fated visit to a witch, a spell that changes everything and needs to be broken, and the misunderstandings and danger that ensue.
After beginning in thrilling fashion, "Brave" turns rather silly and slapsticky rather quickly, as if it were aimed mainly at the little kids in the audience rather than the whole family, for whom most Pixar movies are so satisfying and quite often moving. (Admit it: You sobbed uncontrollably at the beginning of "Up" and the end of "Toy Story 3." We all did.) This time, the usual depth of story and well-developed characters simply aren't there. It's a pleasant diversion but, comparatively, a disappointment.
But "Brave" does boast a strong voice cast, including Billy Connolly and Emma Thompson as Merida's parents, the king and queen. Queen Elinor in particular is concerned with making sure her teenage daughter grows up to be a proper young lady, that she behaves the way a princess should and doesn't go gallivanting about on her own causing mischief; it's bad enough that the couple's young triplet sons are constant troublemakers.
And so she's insistent that Merida buckle down and prepare for marriage, even though it's a huge leap the girl isn't ready to make and despite the fact that her three potential suitors from the other prominent clans are all doofuses. The fact that she shows these boys up in an archery competition humiliates and angers her mother even further.
Sounds good so far. But then "Brave" becomes a well-worn cautionary tale about being careful of what you wish for, as a trip to see a toothless, whiskered old witch in a hidden cottage (voiced by Julie Walters) changes much more than Merida bargained for. We won't reveal the transformation here, but suffice it to say that it's something more complicated than true love's kiss can undo.
The movie itself, however, never changes back to its original form. If Merida herself had been in charge, she probably would have wanted to shake things up a little more.
"Brave," a Disney Pixar release, is rated PG for some scary action and rude humor. Running time: 93 minutes. Two stars out of four.
Motion Picture Association of America rating definitions:
G — General audiences. All ages admitted.
PG — Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.
PG-13 — Special parental guidance strongly suggested for children under 13. Some material may be inappropriate for young children.
R — Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
NC-17 — No one under 17 admitted.