Starring the voices of Kelly Macdonald, Emma Thompson. Written by Mark Andrews, Brenda Chapman, Steve Purcell, Irene Mecchi. Directed by Mark Andrews, Brenda Chapman. PG. 93 min. Opens June 22.
The fact that Brave is the first of Pixar’s 13 feature-length productions to foreground a female protagonist suggests that even Hollywood’s most consistently innovative company can be a little backwards. In that respect, Pixar has been shockingly timid compared to its less celebrated parent company over the last few decades: Disney has given prominence to heroines in everything from The Little Mermaid and Mulan to, more recently, The Princess and the Frog and Tangled. Thankfully, this tale of magic and derring-do in medieval Scotland is robust enough to make up for the company’s unfortunate record of gender inequality. It also restores Pixar’s standards to the level of Up and WALL*E after last summer’s noxious Cars 2.
Leading an impressive cast of brogue-enhanced vocal talent, Kelly Macdonald is suitably spirited as Merida, a flame-haired princess in a rough-hewn kingdom ruled by her big-hearted father, Fergus (Billy Connolly), and less indulgent mother, Elinor (Emma Thompson). Tired of Elinor’s efforts to foster behaviour more becoming of a future queen, the willful girl commits a series of rebellious acts, culminating in an encounter with a memorably wacky witch (Julie Walters). The resulting spell forces Merida and Elinor to put aside their respective stubborn streaks and repair the family’s broken bonds before the damage becomes irreparable.
For all of Merida’s hard-charging bluster and the movie’s deft balance of comedy and action, Brave turns out to be something more rare than a display of grrl power. Instead, the directors’ effort succeeds first and foremost as a surprisingly astute and sensitive study of the tensions that can erupt between mothers and daughters no matter how admirable or loving their intentions may be. This vision of family life as a roiling cauldron of conflicting imperatives is novel and courageous even within Pixar’s justly revered (if dude-centric) canon.