Disney animation is big on the whole "princess" thing, especially if you expand the definition of "princess," as Disney's marketers do, to include basically any female protagonist. Yet somehow Pixar -- in business with Disney since "Toy Story" and now officially part of the family -- has been light on lady heroes until now.
The streak is broken with "Brave," a charming but weightless adventure tale set in the Scottish Highlands. Fiery-haired Merida might not join Snow White and Cinderella in the Disney pantheon, but she's a good addition to the roster of headstrong cartoon women.
She might not want to hang out with those someday-my-prince-will-come types anyway. Though Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald) is a medieval princess, the daughter of raucous King Fergus (Billy Connolly) and stately Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson), her way of thinking is considerably more enlightened. She's a skilled archer, much to her mother's embarrassment and her father's secret pride, and she has no interest in the stuffy refinements of proper princess decorum. She'd rather be like her little brothers, a set of hellion triplets who are allowed -- expected, even -- to get dirty, cause trouble, and make noise.
Merida is particularly outraged by the custom of intermarrying among the kingdom's clans, whereby she, as the king's daughter, will be betrothed to whichever lunkhead suitor best proves himself in a contest of skill among all the clan leaders' sons. It is on this point that Merida and Elinor, who have already clashed the way that all teenage girls and their mothers do, simply cannot agree. Neither will budge.
Here the story reaches the point where magic must become involved or else it can't have the Disney name on it. I'm going to be vague because I enjoyed the experience of seeing where the movie went without any foreknowledge of it. Suffice it to say that Merida desires something and gets it, but with unforeseen consequences. The bulk of the film is about Merida and Elinor healing the rift between them.
Though the story takes a couple unusual paths, it's essentially very simple. Most of the themes are typical for a Disney and/or Pixar production: accepting your responsibilities, doing your duty, carving out your own fate, growing up, learning not to trust witches, etc. There are magical transformations and fearsome beasts, as usual. All of this is delivered with the customary Pixar sincerity, if not the usual dosage of emotional resonance.
But the relationship between Merida and Elinor rings truer than we're used to seeing between mothers and daughters in animated films. (For one thing, the mothers are usually dead.) It's a completely different dynamic from the one between father and daughter or father and son, and "Brave" (written by Brenda Chapman, Irene Mecchi, Mark Andrews, and Steve Purcell, directed by Chapman and Andrews) captures it well. The interaction between Elinor and Fergus is also refreshing -- partly, yes, because it's rare enough to see an intact married couple in a cartoon, but also because their genuine love for each other raises them above the standard husband-and-wife shtick.
"Brave" is focused more on adventure than humor (though there is some comedy), and the action moves swiftly enough. What the film is missing is the crackling dialogue that has marked almost every previous film from this outfit -- that familiar Pixar zing. The characters in "Brave" may be speaking in lovely Scottish accents, but the sentences they're using are perfunctory. "This is what you've been preparing for your whole life!" says Elinor. "No, it's what YOU'VE been preparing me for!" retorts Merida. That exchange could have been pulled verbatim from any other movie about a child who didn't want what her parents had in mind for her, and it's typical of the whole screenplay. Four writers and nobody could punch up the dialogue a little?
This is lesser Pixar, for sure. I doubt even the people who made it would claim it's among the company's best creations. But the first "Cars" reminded us that not every entry can be a masterpiece, or needs to be. There's room for pleasant, sturdy attractions, too, including ones aimed squarely at the hearts and souls of wide-eyed little girls.