Things have been tough for female characters in Disney cartoons of late. When “The Princess and the Frog” yielded “disappointing” returns — i.e., it made gobs of cash but not the usual oodles — the studio retitled “Rapunzel” as “Tangled” so as dispel the supposed stink of girl-heroine.
Meanwhile, the studio rakes it in on its “Princess” line of merchandising; as cultural critic Cintra Wilson notes, “Encoded in the princess dress (and really, all formal dresses are different age-appropriate versions of the same princess dress) is the same unspoken goal: the wedding dress.”
Parents looking for smart, independent and proactive role models for their young daughters will be thrilled by “Brave,” Pixar’s latest (and the studio’s first movie toplined by a female character). But it would be reductive to welcome this exhilarating new film merely as a counterbalance to Disney’s pre-feminist princesses: It’s a rousing adventure and a hilarious comedy, and if its athletic and intelligent leading lady creates a new paradigm for animated features, so much the better.
The girl in question is Merida (voiced by Kelly MacDonald), a Scottish princess with an untamed cascade of ginger curls and an unfailing skill at archery. She’s happiest when she can ride through the countryside hitting targets with her arrows, far from the castle where her stern but loving mother Elinor (Emma Thompson) constantly instructs her on the finer points of being a lady and a princess.
To maintain the peaceable kingdom of the nation’s four ruling clans, Merida’s father Fergus (Billy Connolly) and Eleanor — Merida is one of the few protagonists in Disney animated history to have two living, present parents — summon the lords to present their eldest sons for courtship, despite Merida’s disinterest in being married off as a teenager. When she competes, as Fergus’ firstborn, for her own hand, she outshoots her potential suitors, infuriating her parents.
Running off in a huff, Merida is led by will o’ the wisps to a witch (Julie Walters) who gives Merida a cake that will change Elinor’s mind; as with most bargains with storybook sorceresses, this one goes very wrong, changing the queen into a big black bear. Can Merida change Elinor back before the bear-phobic Fergus hunts her down? And more importantly, can this mother and daughter mend their fraught relationship?
As in “Bridesmaids” or almost any season of “The Bachelorette,” the men are mostly irrelevant here. This is a story about a young woman bucking convention and about the loving mother who nonetheless wishes that her child would toe the line. The usual plot outline for kids' movies gives us hero who learns to believe in himself; this time, the heroine has to get everyone else to believe in her as much as she already believes in herself, while at the same time respecting and understanding the traditions being passed down to her. That’s not a tale often told in American animated films, but “Brave” makes the relationships as important as the action and the comedy.
It certainly helps that there’s plenty of the latter; the mixture of daintiness and ungainliness in the Elinor-in-a-bear’s-body calls to mind the dancing hippos of “Fantasia,” and directors Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman (both of whom co-wrote with Steve Purcell and Irene Mecchi) effectively maintain the Pixar tradition of balancing laughs, thrills and familial love in just the right dosages.
MacDonald gives Merida the perfect balance of spunk and willfulness without ever trying to play it too cute, and Thompson’s richly maternal vocal stylings couldn’t be more spot-on. (Kevin McKidd steals his every scene as Young MacGuffin, a prince whose brogue is so thick even his fellow Scotsmen can’t understand a word he says.)
“Brave” is gorgeous to look at — as usual, the 3D accentuates without being overbearing, and there are moments that offer some of the most photorealistic tableaux I’ve ever seen in an animated film — and features a strong script that avoids the third-act pitfalls that have plagued previous Pixar projects. Whether you’re a fan of great animation, or just jonesing for another arrow-slinging heroine until the next “Hunger Games” sequel comes out, brave the crowds for this one.