Walt Disney began his feature career with a princess story. Now Pixar gives princesses a go after making a dozen other toons, and though the studio brings its usual level of perfectionism and heart to the assignment, “Brave” seems a wee bit conventional by comparison with, say, how radically “The Incredibles” reinvented the superhero genre — not that Pixar’s eager international following will object. Adding a female director to its creative boys’ club, the studio has fashioned a resonant tribute to mother-daughter relationships that packs a level of poignancy on par with such beloved male-bonding classics as “Finding Nemo.”
Though going all girly has made parent company Disney skittish in the past (most recently retitling its Rapunzel adventure “Tangled” to play to crossover interest), this new Celtic princess comes off as enough of a tomboy to ensure near-universal appeal. As its title suggests, “Brave” offers a tougher, more self-reliant heroine for an era in which princes aren’t so charming, set in a sumptuously detailed Scottish environment where her spirit blazes bright as her fiery red hair.
Voiced with verve by Scottish actress Kelly Macdonald, young Merida takes after her father, King Fergus (comedian Billy Connolly), still nursing a grudge against the bear that ate his leg. A defiantly independent lass, Merida prefers archery and horseback riding to the dainty yet dull pursuits taught by her ladylike queen mother, Elinor (Emma Thompson), resulting in many a royal scolding.
The film breezes through most of Merida’s upbringing to find conflict on the eve of her betrothal, when Elinor somehow manages to surprise her daughter with the news that the clan believes in arranged marriage. As far as Merida is concerned, she doesn’t need a man to live happily ever after — a novel concept in the relatively narrow world of cartoon logic, and one that allows the movie to do without a lowly stable boy or other replacement love interest. And so Merida upstages her suitors before running away into the woods alone.
For a girl distrustful of tradition, Merida is quick to put her faith in the ancient forest spirits, following a series of glowing blue will-o’-the-wisps to the door of a witch’s cottage. Had Merida only watched more Disney movies as a girl, she never would have made her next mistake. Naive in the ways of magic, she asks for a spell that will change Elinor’s mind, receiving instead an enchanted cake that transforms her mother into a giant black bear — that most endangered of species in Fergus’ ursine-averse kingdom.
“Brave” may not be a romance, but it is most certainly a love story, using this enchanted device to explore the dynamic between Merida and her mother. Thompson brings deep reserves of empathy to the film’s less obvious but equally strong female role model, matched by a number of touching, nonverbally protective actions after she takes on bear form. The animation is at its best when allowing Elinor’s character to shine through her awkward new shape.
Merida has two days to undo her mistake before the change becomes permanent, but by this point, the film has become just another fairy tale, and only the youngest of children will be surprised by what follows. Familiar though its elements may be, “Brave” feels quite different from earlier Pixar films, demonstrating a refreshing versatility in an oeuvre that was starting to look a bit staid, especially as sequels overtook the slate.
Behind the scenes, Brenda Chapman began the project and retains a directing credit, though Mark Andrews reportedly stepped in around October 2010. However the duties may have been split, the resulting film appears darker and more intricate than anything the studio has attempted before, from the richly textured Highlands cliffs to the individually rendered curls of Merida’s burning-bush hair.
Musically, gone are Randy Newman’s folksy tone and Michael Giacchino’s infectious pep, making room for a different signature from Scottish composer Patrick Doyle. When Merida needs some alone time, the soundtrack offers lovely ballads by Gaelic folk singer Julie Fowlis, but in nearly all other moments, Doyle’s dynamic bagpipe and strings arrangements swarm into action.
That energy reinforces the film’s restless, almost agitated spirit, further mirrored by virtual 3D cameras that swoop and race through the meticulously conceived environments. While elaborate attention was clearly paid in designing this tale’s belligerent gents (with amusing voicework by the likes of Connolly, Robbie Coltrane and Craig Ferguson), Merida and Elinor appear to be its two least detailed characters. Yet Merida’s wild red mane more than compensates for any personality absent from her expressions.
The toon “Brave” most resembles is DreamWorks’ “How to Train Your Dragon,” offering the flipside of that pic’s sensitive-boy predicament in its adventure-seeking heroine. An interesting study could be made in contrasting the two studios’ approaches, no doubt, and yet celebrating their respective accomplishments drives home how far both have come since the year when “A Bug’s Life” and “Antz” bowed opposite one another.
As an added treat, “Brave” is preceded by Enrico Casarosa’s Oscar-nominated short, “La luna,” adding seven minutes to the running time of Pixar’s shortest feature since “Monsters, Inc.”