There are no Prince Charmings in Pixar's new animated adventure Brave, no knights in shining armor. For the most part, the men in this arresting and affecting movie -- set in an enchanted Scottish kingdom an undetermined number of centuries ago -- are content to booze and brawl and leave the business of running things to the women.
The heroine is a tomboyish teenage princess named Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald), who has porcelain white skin, saucerlike blue eyes and a flaming and unruly head of red curls. At the start of the film, she is fighting against her parents' dictate that she must be betrothed to one of the eldest sons of the kingdom's most respected families. That sounds like a familiar fairy-tale theme, but Brave dares to take Merida's side in the debate: I can't think of another children's movie so resolutely and proudly unconcerned with finding a square-jawed hunk for its heroine.
Lest I've made Brave sound like a stodgy feminist tract, or some kind of animated Jane Austen adaptation that will send little boys racing to Madagascar 3, breathe easy: The movie -- a magnificent rebound for Pixar after the wheel spinning of last summer's Cars 2 -- also has sporting competitions and slapstick humor, mysterious witches' spells and some very scary bears. Also a first for Pixar, there's even some brief, comic nudity, when the men must briefly dispense with their kilts to create a cloth rope.
What propels Brave is a genuine belief in the transcendent power of an independent mindset -- it understands and illustrates that you have to define the terms of your own self before you can even think about pairing off. Merida's defiance of her parents isn't "plucky" and "cute," in the manner of most Disney princesses; when she grabs her bow and arrow and takes to the archery field to win the right to choose herself as her spouse, you get the sense that she's desperately fighting for her life. (There is no suggestion, one way or the other, whether Merida might actually like girls instead of boys -- but I imagine a whole generation of adolescents struggling with sexual identity will find deep inspiration here.)
Recent movies like Tangled or The Princess and the Frog pay mere lip service to the notion of girl power, but this one redefines it for an era where gender roles are so infinitely complicated. If the boys don't like it, Brave says, well, tough.
The opening section of the picture is the most conventionally earthbound. As three hapless suitors compete to win her hand, Merida struggles to convince her father (Billy Connolly) and mother (Emma Thompson) that she should be allowed to pursue love on her own terms. There's one especially resonant sequence where Merida and the Queen carry on an argument, even though they are talking to themselves in separate rooms -- an evocation of the commonplace tensions of the mother-daughter relationship, so simple and quietly moving that you are amazed that no one has thought of it before.
The movie really takes off, though, when Merida heads into the forest, following a series of glowing blue will-o'-the-wisps, all the way to the cottage of a mysterious woodcutter (Julie Walters), who may not be what she seems. The less said about the strange spells and beastly transformations that follow, the better.
It spoils nothing, however, to marvel over the way Brave never oversells its supernatural elements, and instead creates a completely plausible world where the ordinary, the surreal and the mythological all happily co-exist and bleed into one another. What makes the fantasy work, of course, is that it's also wedded to an abiding sense of humanity -- the final act of Brave turns into an epic story of mother-daughter reconciliation, like Terms of Endearment with snarling bears and a chase through the forest instead of terminal illness.
I suppose Brave can be taken to task, as some early reviewers have, for not being quite as singular and strange as Pixar's Up or Ratatouille or the "Toy Story" films; you can see traces of the DNA of other films, from Sleeping Beauty to Pocahontas to Braveheart, in this one. Yet that seems an awfully high standard against which to judge any work of art, especially one this wise and tender, that breaks ground in ways that will likely sail over most of the male heads in the crowd. (The film is directed by Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman, and co-directed by Steve Purcell; all three co-wrote the screenplay, along with Irene Mecchi.)
If there's a real gripe to be made about the picture, it's the same gripe I had with The Avengers and Prometheus and Men in Black III -- at least in the theater where I saw the film projected, the 3-D rendered the images to look much too dark. For some of the scenes in the forest, this may very well be the point. But when an entire movie -- one meant for children, no less -- looks like it is taking place in really overcast weather, clearly the technology needs some refining.
My best advice, then, is to see Brave in traditional 2-D, where the indomitable spirit of Merida -- an animated heroine who deserves to achieve the one-name celebrity status of Ariel, Belle or Cinderella -- should completely light up the screen.