By Claudia Puig, USA TODAY
Brave (* * * stars out of four, PG, opens Friday) and its plucky crimson-haired heroine Merida - a veritable Olympics-caliber archer - hit another bull's-eye in the Pixar animation canon.
While the action-adventure saga set in the Scottish Highlands during the 10th century may not have the profound emotional resonance of such gems as Up, WALL-E or Toy Story 3, it's a lively, psychologically astute tale filled with humanity, wit and charming performances.
Pixar has set the bar so high that the expectation for every one of its films is for audiences to laugh, cry and be awed by artistic genius. Brave will draw chuckles and may elicit tears, but more importantly it introduces audiences to a new breed of Disney princess - one brimming with self-confidence, strong opinions, athletic skills, determination, loyalty and a head full of unruly curls.
Princess Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald) is endearing, but she's no simpering Sleeping Beauty. Indefatigable and fierce, she's a role model for girls in the 21st century.
As a little girl, Merida was well-schooled in the use of a bow and arrow by her warmhearted father King Fergus (Billy Connolly). By the time she's a teenager, however, her mother, Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson), insists her daughter adhere to less outdoorsy, more regal pursuits. But the strong-willed Merida refuses to conform. "Princesses don't chortle," her mother scolds. Merida prefers to laugh however she pleases and forge her own path.
Making things more fraught, Merida must entertain marriage offers from princely suitors from neighboring clans. She's not ready to be wed and, defying royal dictates, leaps onto her beloved horse and bolts away. In the forest she happens upon a sorceress (Julie Walters) who grants her an awkwardly worded wish. Actually, it's more akin to a curse which Merida must reverse through acts of valor and love.
Brave simultaneously celebrates the power of tradition, encourages children to make their own way in the world and exhorts parents to see their children as individuals. It's a potent message told with psychological depth, compassion and verve.
As Pixar's first film with a female protagonist, Brave breaks ground, even as it hews to some of the conventions of classic European fairy tales. The look of the animation is richly vibrant, though only scenes featuring magical will-o-the-wisps seem worthy of the 3-D technology. And some of the boisterous antics of the lords and lads competing for Merida's hand come across more like noisy attempts to appeal to boys in the audiences, rather than as essential to the plot.
While the saga is a heroic fantasy, it also realistically captures the complex shadings of familial relationships, particularly those between a mother and her teenage daughter. And for that, it's brave indeed.