With the voices of Kelly Macdonald, Emma Thompson
& Billy Connolly
PG, 100 min. • Released June 22
After a dozen critically acclaimed films set in the alternative worlds of talking toys, animals and cars, among other wildly imaginative creations, the animation wizards at Pixar studios hoe a much more conventional row with “Brave,” a fairly traditional fairytale about a teenage princess and her magic-spell predicament.
Scottish Princess Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald) is heiress to her father’s medieval kingdom, but the headstrong teen chafes under the patriarchal customs that have defined (and confined) women in her world for centuries. So when it comes time for the event at which young male challengers come from all corners to compete for her hand in marriage, she’s in no mood to be anyone’s take-home prize.
Merida, whose spirit burns as bright as her flaming red hair, uses her archery skills to turn the tables on her would-be suitors, leaving the outcome of the competition in chaos. Then a big tiff between Merida and her queen mom (Emma Thompson) leads to a witch’s hex that Merida spends the rest of the movie trying to undo.
The story and direction (both steered by a committee of three) sometime seems to suggest all six elbows bumping into each other as the creative pot was being stirred. The chunky stew of a plot includes a trio of prankish little brothers, the group of comical would-be suitors, the ongoing slapstick-ish bickering of the clamoring clans who’ve come for the competition, and a murky legend about the gigantic bear that bit off the leg of Merida’s father (Billy Connolly) as he was valiantly defending his family when his daughter was but a wee lass.
And that’s not even mentioning what happens to Merida’s mom, who morphs into...well, let’s just say it’s not what Merida was wishing for when she asked the witch to concoct a spell to change her stubborn mother. Oh, she changes, all right!
But the Pixar animation, as usual, is gorgeous, with meticulous attention to detail. Merida’s red hair, a wild tumbleweed of ringlets, curls and wisps, is a sight to behold. The lush vistas of Scottish hills, meadows and forests, melded with the music of bagpipes, tin whistles and other instruments, creates an intoxicating mood.
If you’re a real Pixar fan, pay super-close attention and you’ll get a glimpse of one of the studio’s visual signatures. Remember the Pizza Planet truck, which originally appeared in “Toy Story”? Well, it’s made an appearance, in some form, in every Pixar movie since (except “The Incredibles”). It shows up for just a split second in “Brave” in the scene when Merida visits the witch’s cabin for the first time. See if you can spot it. But you’ve got to watch closely, look for something made of wood---and don’t blink!
The movie offers a medieval twist on a contemporary (if not timeless) theme. Mothers of teenage girls may hear an all-too-familiar ring in Merida’s angry words when she blurts out to her mom, “I’m not going to be like you!” Then she stomps out of her room, out of the castle and out to do something she comes to regret. Can I get a witness, moms?
In the end, Merida’s bravery provides the buzzword that gives the movie its punchy title. But the real message of this story, and its heart, is in the lengths her character goes to repair the damage her words, and her actions, cause to the woman who brought her into the world.
-- Neil Pond, American Profile