At first glance, it looked like Pixar was about to do the unthinkable: Brave was going to stick us with another variation on the "Rudolph plot."
It's a phenomenon I've griped about many times before, this obsession on the part of animation filmmakers with tales of frustrated outcasts who just wanna be accepted for who they are, just like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Hermie the elf. The recent film with which Brave seemed likely to be compared, 2010's How to Train Your Dragon, went down that same road, albeit with liberal doses of 3-D visual majesty. Now here was a story being promoted as that of a tomboyish young princess rejecting the destiny of demure, ladylike domesticity laid out for her. After flirting with that notion in the disappointing Cars 2, was Pixar going to go full Rudolph on us?
Instead, directors Mark Andrews, Brenda Chapman, and Steve Purcell piroutte back from that precipice to discover something considerably richer. It's true, at the outset we meet Merida (Kelly Macdonald) as a free spirit in medieval Scotland who connects more with the world of her warrior father, King Fergus (Billy Connolly), than the rules of ladylike propriety drilled into her by her mother, Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson). Chafing under the expectations that, according to custom, she'll marry the oldest son of a neighboring clan's lord, Merida finds a sorceress (Julie Walters) who may be able to help Merida with her desire to "change her fate." And since this film takes place before the publication of "The Monkey's Paw," we know better than she does that non-specific magical requests can have unintended consequences.
It's likely no surprise to anyone who's seen a Pixar movie that Brave is gorgeous to behold. The camera swoops gloriously over the Scottish countryside, staring up at magnificent waterfalls and soaring hawks; every strand of Merida's unruly mop of red hair appears to have a life of its own. There is, unfortunately, a fairly crucial caveat to that assessment of the film's visual spectacle: If you're going to see it in 3-D, you may end up missing a big chunk of it. Large portions of Brave involve gloomy night scenes, and the natural dimming effect of 3-D glasses will likely combine with the epidemic under-lighting of theater projectors to result in a film that's frustratingly dim to watch. If your theater isn't giving proper care to projection — and a whole lot of them aren't — those extra 3-D dollars might as well have been set on fire outside the theater door.
But when you have an opportunity to focus on the story, you'll find a surprisingly wise metaphor for the natural strain between teen girls and their mothers. One lovely early scene finds Merida and Elinor both talking in frustrated tones about why they behave the way they do — only they're talking about one another while in separate locations, a wall of miscommunication between them. In a wonderfully welcome spin on narratives in which "being yourself" is the ultimate goal, Brave wrestles with the trickier idea of compromise, recognizing where the need for individual expression intersects with your parents' valuable instruction on the way the bigger world works.
It is unfortunate that the parts of Brave less specifically about that idea are bogged down with scattered ingredients from the "How to Make a Contemporary Animated Movie" handbook. The comic relief — mostly in the form of Merida's three puckish, mischievous, never-speaking younger brothers — is amusing, but not always naturally integrated into the storytelling. The action beats are parceled out deliberately and edited with pure functionality. And the filmmakers overuse the device of fairy-like will-o'-the-wisps, literally steering Merida toward the next important plot point. As a whole, it just generally feels familiar, a sampling of Disney adventures ranging from Robin Hood to Brother Bear to Tangled that sometimes struggles to find its own distinctive voice.
Luckily, Brave has that distinctive voice in its central relationship. With Macdonald and Thompson providing lovely voice performances, the film gets at the heart of something thorny and human, reminding us that all those animated tales of misunderstood young rebels are only telling half of the story.