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I may not be able to be entirely rational about this movie. Brave basically had its hooks in me from its opening scene, in which an adorably adventurous little girl buried under a mass of floppy red hair is given her very own bow by her warlord father before traipsing off into the woods in pursuit of will' o the wisps. This is Pixar's first film with a female protagonist, and she's a charmer, even as she manifests some all too real flaws of kids her age. As familiar as this fairy tale may be at times, there's a compelling emotional truth at the center of it.
Merida (voiced by Kelly MacDonald) is a reluctant princess, who prefers adventuring and archery to the more ladylike pursuits taught by her mother Elinor (Emma Thompson). She's really not looking forward to the arrival of the three neighboring clans, who are expecting her to choose one of their sons to marry- and if she doesn't, war between the four groups may break out. Merida escapes from the palace into the woods, and happens upon an old witch- sorry, woodcarver (Julie Walters), who just happens to be able to sell her a spell (and some woodcarvings) to change her fate by changing her mother. Merida, however, doesn't get all the details, and the charmed cake she feeds her mother ends up turning her into a bear. Neither is happy with this arrangement.
So this is obviously one of those stories about an unhappy adolescent learning a lesson about responsibility, and the themes are pretty much on the surface. That's not really a bad thing, because the issues are dealt with thoughtfully. The film doesn't forget that Merida has a valid reason for rebellion, and it's not just she who needs to learn a lesson. As a bear, Elinor has to learn a little bit about living in the wild (at least until her ursine form threatens to overcome her original personality), and so tastes some of the freedom and wildness that Merida so treasures. At the same time, Merida finds that some of the "ladylike" skills she ignored could come in handy, and makes use of them without sacrificing what makes her unique.
The film makes sure to balance any lessons it has with broad but well-executed humor. The princess' three suitors are, respectively, an overdramatic emo kid, a man who cannot speak intelligibly, and basically the village idiot. Most of the actual argument is done by their fathers, who, being old-time scotsmen, spend most of their time insulting and/or threatening to go to war with each other. (Merida's dad, played by Billy Connolly, is a little more gentle but still lives hard and makes rash decisions.) And Merida's three tiny brothers are a delight, fast-moving food snatchers and mischief makers. The character designs are extremely appealing, and the animation shows a great grasp of human movement, notably in Elinor-the-bear retaining a strange grace and composure.
Even if the overall direction of the film is predictable, there are a few surprising beats. Specifically, its evocation of an older, more tragic story plays off the inherent familiarity of its fable. There's a certain self-awareness to Merida being told the same story she's heard before, but not yet realizing the truth of it. Brave is clearly a film that deals with the familiar, but between the visuals, the voice acting, and the comic timing, its charm more than overcomes a lack of novelty. And it turns out to be pretty intelligent in its handling of the issues it raises. It may not seem quite like the film that was advertised as early as last year, but it more than lives up to its potential.
Story by Brenda Chapman
Screenplay by Mark Andrews & Steve Purcell and Brenda Chapman & Irene Mecchi
Directed by Mark Andrews, Brenda Chapman, and Steve Purcell