With her flame-colored ringlets, Merida, the barely adolescent heroine of Pixar's thirteenth feature, looks like a wee Rebekah Brooks, maybe a pint-size Florence Welch. Despite these resemblances, Merida remains an original: Brave, set in the Scottish Highlands in the tenth century, is the animation studio's first film with a female protagonist, a defiant lass who acts as a much-welcome corrective to retrograde Disney heroines of the past and the company's unstoppable pink-princess merchandising.
As a child, Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald), the first-born of King Fergus (Billy Connolly) and Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson), is given a bow and arrow for her birthday by her hulking father; soignée Mom, who has already begun instructing her daughter on the proper comportment behooving a royal lady, registers her disapproval. Growing up to be a fierce archer, Merida will have to do constant battle with Elinor's gender indoctrination ("Princesses do not chortle"), especially when the queen announces that the time has come for suitors from three rival clans to compete for her daughter's hand.
"I'd rather die than be like you," Merida roars to Elinor, perhaps the most radical line ever uttered in a Disney production — and one that highlights just how different the headstrong redhead's predicament is from those of her recent screen sistren. Where fellow bow-and-arrow expert Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games and the titular princess of Snow White and the Huntsman are each one point in love triangles, Merida, resolutely asexual, is nonetheless entangled in the most complicated, all-consuming love- and hate-filled dyad of all: that between a teenage daughter and her mother.
Of course, Merida's insurrectionary spirit can last only so long in a House of Mouse vehicle; the majority of Brave's running time after her uprising is devoted to restoring the sanctity of the nuclear family and smoothing away all rage against Mother. (After all, Pixar is a company that lists "production babies" in its films' closing credits.) But for a while, the film moves into bold, at times perverse, territory. Led by glowing, pulsating will-o'-the-wisps (one of the only scenes justifying the extra bucks required to see Brave in 3-D), Merida visits a witch in a forest and asks her for a spell that will make Elinor drop her insistence on tradition and arranged marriage. Rather than just a change of mind, Mom has a change of species, transformed by bite of hocus-pocus cake into a bear, one that's often docile and confused but occasionally a formidable mass of howling fury.
Advancing the story's Grimm-like grimness is a suitably dark color palette, hues that sometimes suggest Rorschach inkblots. For all female audience members with memories of their struggles of individuation from their mothers, Brave is its own kind of psychological projective test. But again, as convention dictates, these almost-unbearable horrors — a child's guilt over turning a parent into something unrecognizable, of "destroying" her family — are quickly ameliorated, as Merida sets out to "mend a bond torn by pride." (Speaking of tie sundering: Brenda Chapman, who conceived of Brave's story based on her own relationship with her daughter and was the film's original director — making her the first woman to helm a Pixar picture — was fired for "creative differences" and replaced with Mark Andrews.)
Despite some distracting, convoluted plot points — there's too much tomfoolery among the king, the lords from the other clans, and their scions, perhaps to broaden the film's appeal to boys — Brave is, well, brave enough to suggest that the "pride" that wreaked such havoc wasn't only Merida's defining trait. Elinor, equally obstinate, is too changed and enlightened. If her daughter's fiery tresses are inseparable from her indomitable spirit, Elinor's brunet locks, unloosened and freed from her crown by film's end, reveal a telling white streak in front: A tenth-century traditionalist finds her inner Susan Sontag.
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