“Brave” marks the first time Pixar has given us a female protagonist. At first, Merida, a feisty Scottish teen who happens to be a princess, seems like a great character. As the father of a two-year-old who has adorable yet hopelessly curly hair, Merida’s beautiful red locks, along with her fierce independent streak and beguiling intelligence, made her seem like a future role model for my little girl.
Then the second act of “Brave” unfolds and suddenly, Merida isn’t who I thought she was. But we’ll get to that.
“Brave” takes place in mythological Scotland. Under the watchful eye of her mother Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson), Merida, voiced by “Boardwalk Empire’s” Kelly Macdonald, is being trained to be a princess — and if she can’t be a princess, then at least to act like one. The rebellious teen spends her lessons longing for her day off when she can hop on her trusted steed and practice archery with a bow given to her by her father the king when she was a wee lass.
Let’s talk about the king, Fergus (Billy Connelly). The day he gave Merida the bow, he fought with and lost his leg to a demon bear. The story became the stuff of legend and King Fergus has apparently spent his waking hours since fantasizing about the day he can exact his revenge on the creature. It’s not just his fantasy alone — he’s forced it on the clans that make up his kingdom. Let’s face it, exacting revenge by violently killing a bear are always important lessons we want to impart to our kids.
Back to Merida. She’s 17 and the queen thinks it’s time for her to get married. To that end, she’s invited the heads of the three clans to present their sons to her daughter, at which time Merida will decide which of the suitors she wants to spend the rest of her life with. Our little renegade disagrees with that tradition and finds a loophole to buy herself some time. An epic mother-teenage daughter disagreement ensues. Merida runs to the forest to cool her clogs, where she ultimately encounters a witch who gives her a potion to help change her mother’s mind. Instead, it changes her mother into a bear — seriously — and it’s all downhill (down highlands?) from there.
I’m almost convinced this movie’s title is a statement about the courage it took to make a film that completely flies in the face of the great storytelling we’re used to enjoying from Pixar. With “Brave,” the studio once again gives us incredible visuals — creating something gorgeous for moviegoers has apparently become for them as natural as breathing. However, when it comes to telling this particular story, I think everybody’s favorite animation factory developed a bad case of asthma. It’s hard to believe these are the same people who gave us “Wall-E,” “Up,” and “Toy Story 3.” Fortunately, if you can re-suspend your disbelief for the last five minutes of the movie, there’s sort of a cathartic payoff to remind us that if Pixar had kept it simple, “Brave” could have been more accessible, kid-friendly and just plain better than it is.
Two-and-a-half out of five stars.