Brave (dirs. Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman), which is being emphatically touted as Pixar’s first animated film to feature a female protagonist, is an old-school fairy tale adventure spruced up with some revisionist touches. Our heroine, a spunky Scottish princess named Merida (voiced by Kelly MacDonald), plays with a bow and arrow instead of dolls and bristles whenever her mother (Emma Thompson) attempts to school her in the ways of feminine decorum. When her parents host a contest in which the sons of neighboring lords compete for her hand in marriage, Merida explodes—and then sets about asserting her independent will.
With its magical transformations, enchanted forests, and intensely wrought mother-daughter conflicts, Brave is thus firmly rooted in the Western fairy-tale tradition. It’s the first time Pixar has really tried its hand at this most familiar of animated genres; they’ve often made magical worlds out of contemporary settings—or, in the case of WALL-E, out of a post-apocalyptic dystopia. Perhaps not surprisingly, in taking up the story of an imperiled princess Brave thus writes back to such fairy tale classics as Disney’s Snow White and Sleeping Beauty at the same time that it remodels their conventions. The sharp-shooting, rough-riding Merida seems to have been carefully devised by the film’s screenwriters to be the post-feminist corrective to the princesses of Disney’s golden age, who have long been criticized for their shallowness and passivity. So, too, does the film’s eschewing of the familiar marriage plot seem a deliberate attempt to get around the patriarchal logic that structures many of the original tales. But even if Brave lays its progressive politics on thick, it does so (mostly) satisfyingly: it’s genuinely thrilling, for example, to watch this strong-willed maid with her shock of unruly red curls announce that she will take part in the competition for her hand, then proceed to beat her lame-brained suitors at their own game.
The film is also satisfying in its evocation of a classic fairy tale world, which has been stunningly rendered (one has come to expect no less from Pixar’s animators). In trading in their contemporary milieux for that of a storybook, Pixar loses some of its cleverness and its edge—those used to the savvy pop-cultural references of the Toy Story films might find themselves slightly bored by the relative straight-forwardness and simplicity of Brave. But that is perhaps its greatest strength. It may not sound the same depths as films like WALL-E or Up, but its pleasures are no less rich for being somewhat less ingeniously devised. Brave is grand and delightful storytelling.