Pixar’s ‘Brave’ no cookie-cutter cutie

The newest Disney princess, Merida, loves to ride her horse and shoot arrows, often at the same time. She has wild red curls and a puckish smirk, and she climbs cliffs in a way that I hope the young audience members of Disney/Pixar’s Brave don’t try to imitate.

Merida, voiced by Kelly MacDonald, takes after her father Fergus (Billy Connolly), a feudal lord in medieval Scotland. He’s a good-natured, boyish braggart who loves to retell the tale of how he lost his leg defending his family against the monstrous bear Mor’du. Merida gets along famously with him, and with her swashbucklingly mischievous triplet brothers, but not so much with her civilized mother Elinor (Emma Thompson), who’s trying to prepare her for a peace-making arranged marriage to one of three princes from neighboring kingdoms.

Said princes are not a very prepossessing lot, and Merida isn’t ready to get married in any case, so she and her mother clash. In despair, and led through the forest by Will-o’-the-wisps to a witch (Julie Walters), she bargains with the old lady for a spell to “change” her mother, and…

Well, you know how trusting witches usually goes, especially in medieval Scotland. The only thing that really irked me about Brave was that Merida seemed too easy a mark for the crone, but I guess she hadn’t read the same stories that I have. Things don’t work out nearly as grimly for Merida and her family as they do for the hero of Shakespeare’s Scottish Play, but they’re still in for plenty of trouble.

Merida’s gullibility aside, Brave seems to me very nearly an instant classic; almost, though not quite, the peer of the peerless Up. Like that film and all the Pixar efforts, it’s a dazzling piece of cinematic showmanship, and is, maybe, a little less antiseptic than the others.

I don’t mean by this that it’s remotely realistic—nobody could suggest that this well-swept environment reflects, either hygienically or in terms of life options, the real medieval world. It’s a modern, middle-class girl’s fantasy of medieval life. But there is, somehow, a richness, an earthiness of color and texture to Brave that the other Pixar films, by design, didn’t have.

The movie’s people seem pungently human as well. The men, with their gnarled, bushy mugs and irregular physiques, have a comic grandeur, and Merida’s round, mirthful face has a real-girl beauty that the other, more generic Disney princesses can’t claim.

The plot of Brave was concocted by veteran animation writer/director Brenda Chapman and fiddled with by several other hands, including director Mark Andrews. It eventually takes a fanciful supernatural turn, involving both Merida’s Mom and the triplets, that seems off-the-wall at first, but in the end is entirely coherent and emotionally satisfying.

It’s often been noted that the heroines (and heroes) of Disney films rarely have strong mothers, if they have mothers at all. But Brave hinges on a difficult, complicated mother-daughter relationship, with fault on both sides, and this conflict leads to a climactic stretch that’s both highly exciting and moving.

For all the skill of its narrative, however, what’s most remarkable about Brave is that Disney finally really did it—finally gave their audience a genuinely independent-minded Princess. Merida isn’t some cookie-cutter cutie who makes a lot of noise about wanting freedom or adventure while the plot hustles her toward some square-jawed Prince. Merida’s motivation is exactly the opposite: She’s trying to keep the Princes away, at least for a while.

Two other notes: First, Mor’du the Bear was a little scary for both the nine-year-old and the 10-year-old in whose company I saw Brave. These scenes didn’t seem at all as harsh as the witch stuff in Snow White and the Seven Dwarves to me, but parents be forewarned.

Second, don’t be late, as Brave is preceded by a short called La Luna that you don’t want to miss.