Picking itself up after the unwieldy, over-commercialized “Cars 2” sideswiped my child-like adoration for nearly all their earlier films, Pixar-now-part-of-Disney, in its 13th animated feature, regains some traction with “Brave,” a mother-daughter saga set in ye olden Scottish highlands. No, it’s not as grandly imaginative as “The Incredibles” or “Toy Story” or “Wall-E” (among others!), but this female-centric tale of ancient times offers a fine respite from the early summer heat with a refreshing spin of a heroic, mystical, and occasionally terrifying era when men battled fierce beasts and women catered to their expected, earthly needs.
Filled with the same emotional (male) bonding found in “Finding Nemo,” the filial compass now spins from one sex to the other (one wonders why it took Pixar this long), with gratifying results. Kudos to director/co-writer Brenda Chapman (who began, but did not finish, helming the film) and Mark Andrew (who completed the task). The animation is sparkling, even if somewhat diluted by the 3-D overlay. Bristling bear fur and fiery red hair never looked so incredible.
The vocal talent nicely captures the story’s spirit with comic and sometimes intense inflection, and the bulk of the burden is handled with feverish vigor by Scottish actress Kelly Macdonald of “Boardwalk Empire” fame. As the oh-so-independent Princess Merida, she’ll not sit idly by as her parents (Billy Connolly and Emma Thompson) plot an arranged marriage with one of three first-born, princely lads from legendary clans. Alas, when this gene pool of princes proves desperately thin—all gangly or obese or socially misfit men/boys—the bright, blue-eyed lassie makes her mom take a proverbial bite out of some wickedly bad fruit.
The resulting witch’s spell that Merida hopes will soften the stern, traditional perspective of her mother, Queen Elinor, instead goes quite largely awry, and the kingdom finds itself in a comic tug-of-war that tosses the family, starting with a hilarious chase involving a huge bear, Merida’s three adorable younger brothers, a bemused array of wide-eyed staff, and the too-focused-on-omnivores King Fergus. It so happens that the royal dad has a peg leg courtesy of the film’s opening backstory, which helps to explain his mad obsession with anything ursine. As mother and daughter flee to the countryside in search of redemption, understanding, and maybe some fish for dinner, they find towering standing stones and spritely will-o’-the-wisps providing just a few of the distracting obstacles they need to surmount for a peaceful, earnest conclusion.
While I do miss that signature, award-winning song from Randy Newman that populated so many Pixar titles, the right-on score by Patrick Doyle nicely balances soulful ballads with engrossing musical arrangements that help compel the animation forward. Visual sight gags are a-plenty, be it a bare-butted royal posse parading by in a toss-away background shot or a youngster’s acrobatic dive into the bosom of a frightened woman.
As Merida’s fearless capacity for adventure (and some mischief) grows, whether climbing steep cliffs, riding an enormous horse, or fighting for her mother’s life, it is her exceptional markswomanship that allows her to out-duel her would-be suitors with a dizzying array of arrows. With all its spunk and determination, it’s easy to see how close “Brave” gets to the bull’s eye of Pixar perfection.