Much is being made of the fact that Brave is the first Pixar movie with a female protagonist. That’s certainly worth celebrating, but I have to admit that I cringed a little at the introduction of Princess Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald), a defiant tomboy sporting a gigantic mass of flame-red curls and demonstrating archery prowess to rival Robin Hood’s.
Apart from being Scottish, she initially comes across like any number of Disney princesses who yearn for something more, pressured by her mother (Emma Thompson) to be more ladylike and roaming the verdant countryside to the tune of insipid pop songs with lyrics about touching the sky. Indeed, for a good 15 minutes, Brave feels much more Disney movie than Pixar. (Not a compliment.) When the queen informs Merida that she’s to be married off to one of three dopey suitors from the kingdom, to perpetuate useful alliances, and Merida jumps on her horse to flee her fate, I resigned myself to a generic tale of empowerment and true love.
As it turns out, however, Brave’s bland part-of-your-world setup is mostly misdirection, and Pixar has done a superb job of hiding the nature of the movie’s actual plot, which is barely even hinted at in the trailers. Nor would I dream of telling you, since watching the absurdity take hold is much of the fun. Suffice it to say that Merida encounters a very eccentric witch (Julie Walters) who provides her with a singularly unhelpful spell, and that Merida’s subsequent efforts to regain control of her life push Brave into a more typically Pixaresque combination of knockabout comedy and tearjerking pathos. What’s more—and this really is almost revolutionary—there’s no love interest for Merida at all in this tale, which is fundamentally about the growing pains of any relationship between mother and daughter. The film was conceived by co-director Brenda Chapman—Pixar’s first female director—and though she was reportedly forced off of her own project (Mark Andrews receives the other directing credit), her sensibility remains.