At first glance, it looked like Pixar's Brave was going to be another one of those animated tales of frustrated outcasts who just wanna be accepted for who they are. But directors Mark Andrews, Brenda Chapman and Steve Purcell pirouette back from that precipice to discover something considerably richer.
It's true, at the outset we meet Merida (Kelly Macdonald) as a free spirit in medieval Scotland who connects more with the world of her warrior father, King Fergus (Billy Connolly) than the rules of ladylike propriety drilled into her by her mother, Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson). Chafing under the expectation that she'll marry the son of a neighboring clan's lord, Merida finds a sorceress (Julie Walters) who may be able to help Merida with her desire to change her fate.
It's likely no surprise to anyone who's seen a Pixar movie that Brave is gorgeous. The camera swoops gloriously over the Scottish countryside. Every strand of Merida's unruly mop of red hair appears to have a life of its own.
There is, unfortunately, a fairly crucial caveat: If you're going to see Brave in 3D, you may end up missing a big chunk of it. Large portions involve gloomy night scenes, and the dimming effect of 3D glasses may combine with the epidemic under-lighting of theater projectors to result in a film that's frustratingly dim to watch.
But when you focus on the story, you'll find a surprisingly wise metaphor for the natural strain between teen girls and their mothers. One lovely early scene finds Merida and Elinor both talking in frustrated tones about why they behave the way they do - only they're talking about one another while in separate locations, a wall of miscommunication between them. In a wonderfully welcome spin on "being yourself" narratives, Brave wrestles with the trickier idea of compromise: recognizing where the need for individual expression intersects with parents' valuable instruction.
Unfortunate, the parts of Brave less specifically about that idea bog down in scattered ingredients from the "How to Make a Contemporary Animated Movie" handbook. The comic relief - mostly in the form of Merida's puckish, mischievous, never-speaking younger brothers - is amusing, but not always naturally integrated into the storytelling; the action beats are parceled out deliberately, and edited with pure functionality; the filmmakers overuse the device of fairy-like will-o'-the-wisps literally steering Merida toward the next important plot point. Brave generally feels familiar, a sampling of Disney adventures ranging from Robin Hood to Tangled that sometimes struggles to find its own distinctive voice.
Still, Brave has that distinctive voice in the scenes about its central relationship. With Macdonald and Thompson providing lovely voice performances, Brave gets at the heart of something thorny and human, reminding us that all those animated tales of misunderstood young rebels are only telling half of the story.