The glow has faded from the once peerless Pixar franchise that brought us Toy Story, The Incredibles, Up, Ratatouille, Wall-E, and pretty much everything from the DVD top shelf of kids' movie entertainment over the past 17 years. In 2010, Pixar, now under the aegis of Disney, saw its weakest release to date, the mediocre Cars 2, which was never justified as much more than a merchandise grab.
Now comes Brave, the company's 13th feature film, and first with a female lead. Beyond the usual visual lustre of the castles, crags and Scottish highlands, and first-rate vocal performances, Brave feels like a merely good-enough children's movie. It's a bit overstuffed with narrative incidents, occasionally wearying in its slapstick, and dependent on a too-convenient magical plot turn. What we get would be fine from another studio, but too safe and familiar for Pixar.
No fault here goes to the heroine herself, a spritely medieval princess with a superb waterfall of unruly red curls which spill about her cheeks and down past her shoulders. The owner of the hair is named Merida, and she's vivaciously voiced by Scottish actress Kelly Macdonald (Trainspotting, Boardwalk Empire). Her father, King Fergus (Billy Connolly), is a happy-go-lucky lug who dines out on stories of the bear that once dined out on his leg. Her mother, Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson), is prim and critical, and would prefer that Merida spend her time in ladylike pursuits rather than practicing her archery and galloping about on her horse, Angus.
All this comes to a head when Merida reaches adolescence and is expected to wed to maintain order among the potentially warring clans. That leads to the Highland games, where a trio of dopey young men are offered up as potential husbands. While waiting to see which man will win Merida's hand, the clan members squabble and fight at the drop of a hat; this prompts Merida and her mother to roll their eyes in exasperation, which may be response of anyone in the audience who isn't a boy under 10. Also, for boys, Merida is cursed with a trio of identical-triplet brothers who all look as though they will grow up to be Sid, the toy torturer from the first Toy Story movie. To their credit, the filmmakers don't dance around the cruelty of bartering off an adolescent girl in an arranged marriage. "I don't want my life to be over," Merida tells her mother. "I want my freedom."
Like a pint-sized Katniss Everdeen, she enters the games herself and wins with her archery prowess. When her mother tries to punish her by throwing her bow into the fireplace, Merida rides off into the woods in a temper. There she meets a slightly dotty witch (Julie Walters) who casts a spell to help change Elinor's mind, and, as it turns out, much more than that.
Major spoiler alert, and major bear alert. Elinor is turned into a Mama Bear. Unlike the Sarah Palin version, she can no longer speak, although she attempts to maintain her fastidious table manners until her ravenous ursine stomach takes over. Mother and daughter now need each other in an urgent way. What was previously a mild marital discord now takes on a lethal edge, as the bear-hating King Fergus is now, unwittingly, on the trail of his transformed wife.
The mutual dependency reminds them of one another's virtues. Elinor, silenced from her usual remonstrations, can finally Merida's woodsy skills. Merida learns to curb her pride and appreciate her mother's fiercely protective instincts. "A legend is a lesson" is a repeated refrain in Brave, but some of these lessons seems a bit too much like acquiescence to conform completely with Brave's superficial girl-empowerment theme (director Brenda Chapman, who departed the project in 2010, was also Pixar's first woman director). The contradictions in the film's values go deeper.
The introduction of the midpoint enchantment plot takes the movie out of the realm of wit and the patient elegance of the best Pixar films and into the much more conventional sphere of the Disney tradition. There's a spell to be broken, a quest to be embarked upon, and a lesson for a princess to learn before she accepts her "destiny." All that really remains delightfully unruly about Brave is Merida's fabulous hair.