Disney and Pixar again advance movie animation and tell a good tale in the visually delightful Brave. Oh, and add another girl-power, bow-and-arrow heroine to the list.
There is a bit of the familiar and a lot that is new, at least for Disney - hilariously bare bottoms being the least of it.
Brave again gives us a protagonist not allowed to really be herself because of enforced tradition and royal expectations. This time it is a sassy highland princess named Merida with wildly curly red hair symbolizing her independent spirit. "Sassy" may seem a sexist cliche, but it is Merida's sassing of her mother the queen that starts all of the trouble.
The story of Brave is ultimately about mother-daughter relationships. There must be listening on both sides or the results can be even worse than estrangement, as Merida unfortunately proves.
Set in ancient Scotland, where even the royals are pretty rough, Brave introduces King Fergus and Queen Elinor raising a young family of wild, red-headed kids. Fergus is large, genial and kind, if a bit doltish and has well earned his reputation as a bear killer. Elinor is far more refined and well spoken. Merida is the oldest and therefore carries the highest expectations. Her triplet little brothers, she tells us, get away with murder.
As Merida becomes a teenager, Elinor works daily to try to shape her into a proper princess. That means learning to speak in public, have some class and most of all keep weapons off the dining table. Fergus, on the other hand, seems only entertained by his daughter's exploits.
To Merida's surprise (and horror), her mother announces that the three other clans are coming as guests, with the oldest son of each leader expected to vie for Merida's hand in marriage. Even before seeing how dismal the pickings are among the three suitors, Merida is fighting like mad not to be chained to this tradition.
She and the queen go at it as any mother and daughter would. Merida's way of finally making a statement is to pull off an skillful archery stunt designed to declare her independence but in reality only humiliates her suitors and enrages her mother.
Merida flees to the woods, where she encounters a Stonehenge like configuration, follows a trail of will-o'-the-wisps and meets a frenzied little witch.
Merida gets the bright idea to ask the witch for a spell that will "change" her mother so she won't have to marry anyone she doesn't want to. If you know anything about Disney witches, you know this is not a good idea.
The witch does not ask for Merida's soul or anything grandiose like her predecessors, just a nice bit of jewelry. She does not bother to tell Merida what the change is, and Merida doesn't care, as long as she gets her way. There is a warning, a bit late in the day, that the change will be permanent at the second sunrise.
To say how Elinor is changed is to give away too much of the drama and comedy that ensues. But it does give the Disney/Pixar animators the opportunity to really show off the highest level of visual skill.
The art and photography in creating the highland setting, heather, forest and castle, is outstanding. The characters are all memorably drawn. There is great attention to behavioral detail in the depiction of animals in Brave. Merida's horse is perhaps the best ever rendered by Disney.
The vocal cast is spot on, led by Kelly Macdonald as Merida. Billy Connolly is particularly funny as her father Fergus, and Emma Thompson is all properness as the queen.
There are more than a few comparisons to DreamWorks' fairly Scottish How to Train Your Dragon, with Craig Ferguson in good voice here as well. And besides some general similarities between this plot and the basics of so many others from Disney, there is a particular visual moment in the archery competition that goes all the way back to Disney's animated Robin Hood (1973), which itself harkened back to Errol Flynn.
Yet Brave, like its heroine, breaks from tradition to serve up the unexpected. Right when it needs to, if finds a different path.
Brave is playing at Cottonwood Cinema and at Harkins Sedona 6 Theatres.