Disney has obviously built its kingdom on recreating ancient folk tales that center around the animated adventures of various mythical princesses. Pixar, however, usually sticks to more contemporary computer animated tales about creatures in the toy box, in the closet or under the sea. With Brave, the two combine their talents for a visually magnificent CGI fairy tale filled with somewhat subversive adult humor and a moral that’s more empowering than the typical Disney damsel in distress.
Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald) is a defiant young princess who would rather explore her Scottish Highland surroundings with her trusty bow and arrow than be the prim and proper lady Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson) wants her to be. Her father, King Fergus (Billy Connolly), finds Merida’s defiance endearing, and her trouble-making triplet siblings appreciate that she sneaks them fresh-baked sweets under the dinner table. But when her parents invite three suitors to compete for Merida’s companionship, the young princess flees into the woods, only to have will o’ the wisps (small blue fairy flames known for leading people to new fates, not the masked character once portrayed by Jeff Hardy) direct her to a mysterious cottage occupied by a strange old woman (Julie Walters) who carves things (mostly bears) out of wood.
Preying on Merida’s apparent adolescent frustrations towards the queen, the old woman offers Merida a pastry that will “change” the queen after she consumes it. But the change that takes place isn’t quite what Merida had in mind and she soon finds herself hiding in the woods with the bear that used to be her mom. To make things worse, Fergus is highly regarded for his conquests over ferocious bears and has an innate desire to add more to his taxidermy collection. And don’t forget about the triplets and their collective sweet tooth.
All Merida asked for was to change her fate, and she soon realizes she should have been a little more specific about that before making a deal with a witch in the woods. But as this red-haired beauty and her beast of a mother try to figure out how to undo this spell, they not only have to comically evade the bear-hungry king, they also learn a lot about themselves and each other. But the queen is becoming more and more like a bear and less and less like her human self as time goes on, so they must hurry before the curse becomes permanent.
While the girls are away, the three potential suitors have created chaos back at home, and the king seems to be reveling in it. But at the urging of her mother (who’s transformation has given her a fresh perspective and a change of heart), Merida brings order back to the castle by breaking tradition and introducing the novel idea that people should have free will when it comes to marriage rather than going along with arranged romances. But before we see a happily ever after, there just has to be a big bear battle. And it’s a good one as the very same bear responsible for the king’s peg leg shows up and Merida’s mommy bear takes on the challenge.
Brave showcases the courage of women (and men) who stand up for what they believe in, while also teaching lessons about how to do that without harming those around them. It’s when that balance is struck that the fairy tale ending can truly happen. But the real star of this movie is Pixar, whose work here is unlike anything that’s been seen in the studio’s previous movies. From Merida’s realistic red hair to the rain cascading down the castle’s stone walls to astonishing aerial views of Scottish landscapes, the animation in Brave blends surrealistic caricatures with eerily realistic elements for visual magic unlike anything Disney has done before. And it’s these visual and thematic progressions that make this otherwise traditional Disney tale an eye-opening new adventure.