There has been a lot of press about how Merida of PIXAR's "Brave" is the studio's first female lead character, and a princess to boot. Now what are the implications of that? The Disney princesses come with a lot of baggage, and are often pointed to as questionable role models for the little girls who love them. Many hoped that Merida would be made of stronger stuff, following the lead of the more active, aggressive warrior princesses that have become so popular lately, while others worried that she'd be another example of overbearing "girl power."
I don't think that Merida (Kelly MacDonald) was really what anyone was expecting. Yes, she is a princess, but she doesn't want to be one. Being a princess, the film tells us, comes with a lot of responsibilities. Merida is being trained by her mother, Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson) to become a proper and refined lady, while Merida would much rather be out riding and adventuring. A talented archer, she takes after her father, the hulking, jovial King Fergus (Billy Connolly), who lost a leg to the "demon" bear Mor'du. Mother and daughter clash and argue, but things really come to a head when Merida learns she is to be betrothed to the son of one of the clan leaders her kingdom is allied with. The trio of Lord MacGuffin (Kevin McKidd), Lord Macintosh (Craig Ferguson), and Lord Dingwall (Robbie Coltrane) soon arrive with their offspring in tow, and Merida wants nothing to do with them, despite her mother's best efforts.
"Brave" is not your usual princess story, in that it has very little to do with romance and everything to do with healing the rift between Merida and her mother. Our heroine is also not particularly heroic to start out with. Yes, she's a fiery, red-haired, tomboyish free spirit, and that's a lot of fun, but she's also immature and self-centered, and has to grow into the hero role. I expect that some viewers might be initially taken aback by her behavior, because she's really a bit of a brat at times, grumbling over all of her mother's lessons and expectations. Of course, that's perfectly normal for a teenage girl, and I appreciate that PIXAR went this route with Merida. It makes her much more memorable and emotionally genuine than the bulk of the starry-eyed Disney girls.
Also, her rougher side is understandable in light of the rest of the family. Loveable King Fergus brings his wild and woolly warrior ways to the dinner table. Merida has a trio of impish younger brothers who are expert troublemakers, frequently stealing sweets from the kitchen to fuel their hyperactivity. They also steal the picture whenever they appear. Elinor is the only real civilizing force in family, but she's very strong and formidable in her own way. And they all live on the edge of untamed Scottish wilderness, where hunting and adventuring and going to war with people is pretty much par for the course. And then when the clan leaders show up, with their weapons in tow, some good-natured brawling is inevitable.
The film's biggest flaw is that the story is sort of a mess. The tone and pacing are all over the place, and the logic of marriages and traditions and magic and ghosts is all very arbitrary and convenient. I think the story of Merida and her mother works perfectly fine on an emotional level though, the messages are strong, and there are lots of good action and comic set pieces to keep the energy high. I was surprised at how funny "Brave" is, with its copious slapstick and some inspired minor characters. There is a witch in the film, voiced by Julie Walters, and she - well, better not to spoil it. Also, parents should be warned that there are some scary scenes involving bears that may upset very young viewers.
Of course, as this is a PIXAR film, "Brave" looks terrific. PIXAR's visuals are still head and shoulders above all its competitors. The scenery's gorgeous, the animation is fantastic, and the design work gets a lot of mileage out of the Celtic setting. There are some aesthetic similarities to Dreamworks' "How to Train Your Dragon," particularly as both movies share a couple of Scottish voice actors, but "Brave" looks quite a bit more authentic, in its own heavily stylized way, with a lot of extra little cultural touches. And only in a PIXAR movie would the most impressive visual be Merida's unruly red curls, which immediately draw the eye in every frame she appears in.
I think "Brave" is going to be one of those movies that won't work for everybody, where some people are going to find its flaws too glaring to overlook. I, however, enjoyed "Brave" more than I enjoyed "Up" or "WALL-E." I don't think that it's among the better PIXAR films, but there is no doubt that this is a PIXAR caliber film.