In Brave, feisty redheaded princess Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald) follows a string of light fairies—or are they fire goblins?—called wisps. The will o’ the wisps is a mystery, but Merida’s bravery is not: She fearlessly trails them through a stone circle, down a ravine, and into a forbidding cottage. Even her spirited horse, a big Clydesdale called Angus, gets skittish in this terrain. In this scene, everything that is wonderful about Brave comes into play: the gorgeous Celtic-inspired animation, enchanting highlands landscape (you can practically smell the heather), beautifully detailed design, and a genuine feel for what’s magical and mystical. Pixar’s answer to DreamWorks’ marvelous How to Train Your Dragon seems a worthy challenger to that film’s exuberance of plot and endearing characters.
And most of the time it is. Young Merida (whose fire-red corkscrew curls are practically an entity on their own) lives in an ancient Scottish kingdom with her royal parents: absurdly courageous King Fergus (voiced by Billy Connolly) and traditional, sensible Queen Elinor (voiced by Emma Thompson). This rough-and-tumble court includes her brothers, a triplet of rascally toddlers, and the memory of Fergus’ Moby Dick-type encounter with a giant bear that chomped off his leg.
Happy in this boisterous place, Merida most enjoys archery, but as she gets older, she chaffs more and more at her mother’s incessant attempts to groom her for a throne of her own (and so may the audience). To keep peace between the clans, Merida must marry one of three buffoonish princes who are invited to compete for her hand. To escape this unwanted fate, Merida makes a foolish bargain with a witch, and then must undo the unintentional damage that follows.
Directed by the three people who wrote it (Mark Andrews, Brenda Chapman and Steve Purcell), Brave follows a narrative that is absorbingly of a piece with its craggy, Celtic art design (like Dragon, the application of light, from sunlight to firelight, is mesmerizing). The triplets’ mischief will delight younger viewers while grown-ups can follow the winding backstory regarding a primeval spell (which may be a bit intense for small children). There are extraordinary examples of animation at its most beguiling, such as the exaggerated realism of Angus and the expressiveness of the animals. The voice acting and comic timing are inspired from start to finish. And yet Brave does not melt the heart as other near-classic animated films of recent years.
The conflict between the tomboyish princess and her fussy mother takes some unexpected turns, but is also exposes a selfish streak that borders on meanness in Merida. It’s one thing—the expected thing—for the heroine to have to grow out of being a self-centered teen, but quite another for her to act on a cold disregard for anyone else. This is especially disappointing considering that Brave is Pixar’s first girlcentric outing, and that Merida’s exceptional skill with a bow and arrow is all for show.