If it weren't for those Cars movies, the union of Disney and Pixar would be damn near invincible. There are no cars in Brave, the latest computer-animated adventure from this outfit, but it may be a letdown to some, especially those who thought it would be a kick-ass combo of medieval action and you-go-girl empowerment. Instead, Brave ends up just being, well, cute.
Taking place in the 10th-century Scottish highlands, the movie features Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald, almost overdoing it with the Scottish brogue), a teenage tomboy who just happens to be the princess of her kingdom. Sporting the most unkempt yet adorable mane of tomato-red locks I've seen since Tori Amos during her "Silent All These Years" prime, Merida would rather ride through the forest on her faithful steed while shooting arrows with her trusty bow, than take part in the girly activities preferred by her queen mum (Emma Thompson). Tension builds between them as the queen invites three lords to the kingdom, who in turn bring their not-too-fetching sons as possible suitors for Merida.
Fed up that her mom won't let her live her own life, Merida hops on her horse and runs off in the woods. She comes across the home of a woodcarving witch (Julie Walters), who reluctantly casts a spell for Merida that would get her mom off her back. Since the trailers haven't revealed the Grimm-like twist that happens next, I will say it's so outta-left-field, it made me think, "So, this is what the movie's gonna be now, huh?"
As far as Disney-Pixar collaborations go, Brave is a minor triumph, which almost makes it a failure considering the hall of past masterpieces: Ratatouille, WALL-E, Up, Toy Story 3. Despite its girls-can-be-warriors-too aesthetic that seems to be all the rage at the multiplexes now, it's not as ambitious as advertised. However, I would gladly sit through this again instead of those problematic, women-with-weapons flicks The Hunger Games or Snow White and the Huntsman. (At least Brave has a tight, engaging story to go with its ready-for-battle gamine.)
What Brave lacks in epic spirit, it makes up for by being just plain ol' charming. Much like that other Middle Ages-era cartoon flick How to Train Your Dragon, Brave has obvious heart, but it's essentially an enjoyable screwball comedy. As Merida and her mother get to know each other under dire circumstances, the characters with man-junk (and that includes Merida's triplet brothers, a trio of silent-but-mischievous gingers who must have been inspired by those bruising brothers from Slap Shot) are prone to slapsticky misadventures. (Thanks to the filmmakers—directors Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman, who wrote the script with Disney/ Pixar vets Steve Purcell and Irene Mecchi—for keeping us dunderheaded male audiences in mind when they came up with the story.)
Yes, Brave still has some courage to it, as Merida tones down the drama-queen act and springs into action for the good of her family. But, truth be told, it's really the most sympathetic salute to mothers Disney has released since Freaky Friday. Just like that film, Brave sets out to show how moms always have it rough trying to figure out what's best for their children. And even when they fail at it, children should understand and respect their intentions, even thank them for putting up with their ungrateful asses. We may have just observed Father's Day, but the filmmakers of Brave remind you to always be nice to your mama.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Grrrrl, you'll be a woman soon."