It's been a good couple of months for strong-minded women wielding medieval weaponry: The Hunger Games, Snow White and the Huntsman, and now Pixar's Brave. Set in the Scottish highlands of, oh, a thousand years ago, this dark and lovely yarn borrows from Old World folk tales, and more than a bit, too, from Hayao Miyazaki's heroine-driven animated adventures.
Although it takes its time getting there, Brave turns into a powerful story of transformation (literal and figurative), as the young princess Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald) sets out to rescue her mother (Emma Thompson) from a witch's spell that has turned her into a bear. If Merida doesn't break the spell within two sunrises' time, Mom is going to be very big and very furry for the rest of her life.
And the queen's husband, Fergus (Billy Connolly), absolutely loathes bears - he lost his leg to one, and has made it his mission to banish the ursine set from his land.
Although Brave is satisfying and spirited and laced with humor (haggis jokes, kilt jokes), it doesn't quite mark a return to form for Pixar following the digital house's disappointing 12th feature, Cars 2. The company's founder, Toy Story director John Lasseter, has been running his operation as well as parent company Disney's animation division, and Brave feels more like an aesthetic mix of the two camps. It's less exhilaratingly wacky, less fun, more tradition-bound, predictable.
Still, a lot of heart has gone into this affair, which is rife with Celtic-inspired music and montages of the redheaded Merida traipsing across moors, climbing cliffs, riding horses, shooting her bow and arrows. When her mother (still in human form) announces that it's time to consider suitors for her betrothal, Merida wants none of it - and who can blame her? The scions of the Dingwall, MacGuffin, and MacIntosh clans are a buffoonish lot, and why should a princess be forced to marry, anyway?
It's no accident that the males in Brave - from the barrel-chested father figure Fergus to the lords who come a-courtin' to the tiny redheaded triplets who are Merida's sibs - are rendered in an old-school, cartoonish style, while the mother and daughter at the center are more elegant, noble, humanlike. This is a tale of female empowerment, after all, of bonds between women, of independence and determination. Men? They're clowns.
And when the child and the bear are off in the woods, looking to undo their curse, it's the daughter who takes charge, teaching her mother how to catch fish in her unfamiliar clawed paws, in that terrifying maw. And Merida is fearless, and loving.
Brave shares its directing credits three ways: Mark Andrews, Brenda Chapman, and Steve Purcell, which may be another reason this doesn't feel like your typical Pixar venture - movie by committee, not by imagination. But when Merida follows the little blue glow of the will-o'-the-wisps into the forest, or when she fixes her arrow on a target (in an archery contest that echoes The Adventures of Robin Hood) or tugs restlessly at a lock of hair dangling loose from her wimple, her purpose and poise become the film's - and it catches fire.
"La Luna," one of this year's Oscar-nominated animated shorts, precedes Brave. There's a saucer-eyed little boy, a couple of geezer fishermen, and a ladder to the moon. Pixar magic and pixie dust.