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Brave (2012)

Action/Adventure Rated PG

I should have known better.

My heart sank during the first third of Brave, which appeared to be nothing more than another anti-princess exercise in girl power. Such narratives are amusing enough – and still needed – yet they’re too routine for a studio as consistently inventive as Pixar (Cars 2 notwithstanding). At the movie’s start, Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald), the daughter of King Fergus (Billy Connolly), rejects three suitors who have been presented to her, upstaging them in an archery contest for emphasis. It seemed as if a conventional tale of liberating tomboyishness was certain to follow.

Hardly. Co-written by its three directors – Mark Andrews, Brenda Chapman and Steve Purcell – with additional screenplay help from Irene Mecchi, Brave features an ingenious second-act twist that completely reframes the narrative. I’ll refrain from sharing details, but suffice it to say the movie shifts its focus from Merida and her suitors to Merida and her mother, who is the main force in arranging a marriage. If all Pixar movies really speak to the parents in the audience, then Brave is meant for moms of soon-to-be-tween girls.

Brave also nicely stands aside from the princess-tomboy dichotomy that Disney, Pixar’s parent company, has always trafficked in, going all the way back to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. In trying to correct the damsel-in-distress thread in Snow White and other Disney classics, contemporary fairy tales have frequently emphasized the female action figure, a heroine who achieves equality largely by imitating the battling boys (think Mulan). Brave, by its end, has found a lovely balance: Merida is allowed to challenge the sexist traditions oppressing her without abandoning her femininity. She’s not a princess or a tomboy – she’s simply, uniquely Merida.

Brave has other pleasures, including a fecund visual scheme dominated by mist and moss and a demon-bear villain that even Timothy Treadwell would have feared. If the movie isn’t quite as funny as other Pixar pictures or as visually inventive overall, Brave still stands out for its unique place in the Disney princess canon. It’s the first such animated adventure I can remember in which the heroine’s climactic act of bravery involves archery, swordsmanship and a bit of sewing as well.