Feminist pop-culture monitors have been on high alert since learning that the heroine of “Brave,” Pixar’s first female protagonist, is — uh-oh — a fairy-tale princess, the most insidious archetype ever devised by the patriarchy for reinforcing traditional gender roles.
The feminists needn’t have worried. Scottish princess Merida (Kelly Macdonald, the trailblazing heroine of the studio’s new animated adventure tale, is a feminist’s fairy-tale princess — a tough and headstrong lass, the kind of girl who prefers the company of her bow and arrow to that of court.
Merida’s unruly and lush mane of red hair — captured beautifully in 3-D, as are the mystical highlands of 10th-century Scotland — is as wild as the girl herself. An exasperated Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson) does her best to tame her daughter’s undisciplined and unladylike ways — do be perfect, don’t leave your weapons on the dinner table — but Merida resists her at every turn.
The most important royal duty, of course, is marriage. When Queen Elinor and her boisterous husband, King Fergus (Billy Connolly), inform Merida that, according to tradition, she is to marry one of the firstborns from the three neighboring clans, Merida throws a temper tantrum. “It’s my life,” Merida cries. “I want my freedom.” (Or, in the words of King Fergus, who does a hilarious impression of her: “I don’t want to get married, I want to stay single and let my hair flow in the wind as I ride through the glen firing arrows into the sunset.”)
Furious at her mother, the voice of order and responsibility, the young princess makes a rash decision: to enlist the help of a witch. Merida wants a spell that will “change” the tradition-minded queen so eager to marry off her daughter. If she changes her mom, she changes her fate. Of course, it’s a dark and messy business, tampering with someone’s nature, as Merida learns the hard way when the spell transforms the queen into a large bear.
Suddenly, the plot pivots. The story more or less drops the marriage theme and gets to its real concern: the relationship between a mother and a daughter. Or, to look at it another way, it’s about the tension between traditional order and new pressures for change and individual self-determination. Having realized the recklessness of her mistake, Merida makes it her duty to find a way to turn her mom back into the queen she is before it’s too late. In this quest, Merida learns the true meaning of what it is to be brave.
“Brave” is not without its flaws. With its princess, suitors and fair share of maudlin music, the story starts off on familiar, even boilerplate, ground for Disney. Some of the plot devices feel forced — the will-o-the-wisps, which lead Merida to her “fate” on multiple occasions, always appear at moments of crisis.
But once “Brave” negotiates its rather rocky transition into its main themes, the story comes together. The scenes in the forest, where Merida and her bear-mother have to come to terms with each other and their strange situation, are among the most touching scenes of mother-daughter love in recent memory. Relieved periodically by moments of slapstick humor, the tale gallops forward to a dramatic climax in an exciting, if frightening, action sequence that recently left one baby in the theater crying.
Despite occasional cliches, “Brave” is an entertaining coming-of-age tale. Merida’s personal growth, from a selfish and immature girl into a humble and duty-bound princess, is made sweeter by the fact that it’s ignited by the love and concern she has for making things right with mom.
So what does being brave require of Merida? At the beginning of the movie, her solution to her problems is to change her mother rather than change herself. By the end, Merida grows into a woman by heeding, of all things, the wisdom of the witch: “Fate can be changed/Look inside/Mend the bond/Torn by pride.”
CREDITS: Directed by Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman; written by Mark Andrews, Steve Purcell, Brenda Chapman, and Irene Mecchi
RATING: PG for scary action and rude humor.
RUNNING TIME: 93 minutes