It’s noteworthy that Disney/Pixar’s Brave, opening Friday, June 22 is the first Pixar feature — and the first Disney animated feature in a while — to focus on a heroine, rather than a hero. And not a heroine whose fate is somehow bound up with romance — that’s a crucial distinction.
Even more noteworthy: Brave shows Pixar has its groove back, after the deadly misfire of Cars 2.
With a trio of directors and a quartet of writers, Brave creates its own mythology: a Scottish kingdom in the days of swords and spells, ruled by the raucous King Fergus (Billy Connolly) and his prim (and strong-willed) queen, Elinor (Emma Thompson). Fergus has riotously red hair, an obviously dominant trait that has carried over to his children: a trio of mischievous male triplets, as well as their older sister, Merida (Kelly Macdonald).
Merida is the focus of the story: a willful, adventurous young woman who is athletic and outspoken. She loves riding and is an ace archer. (This is, by my count, the third movie this year built totally or partially around a character for whom archery is a key skill. Trend alert!)
But her mother is a traditionalist — and she informs Merida that the time has come to marry her off. There are four clans that rule Scotland in peace — and the leaders of the other three will be bringing their first-born sons to Fergus’ castle to let her choose between them.
Merida is having none of it. Given a choice of competitions in which to have her suitors vie for her hand, she picks archery — then outdoes all three of them, as a way of saying she would just as soon be independent. But her mother refuses to budge.
So Merida goes off to the woods to blow off steam — and is led by magical sprites called wisps to a remote cabin behind a Stonehenge-like site. There, she meets a wood-carving witch (Julie Walters) with a thing for bears, from whom she extracts a spell to help her change her fate. The spell takes the form of a pastry, which will fulfill Merida’s wish once her mother eats it.
But the spell, in fact, turns Elinor herself into a bear (creatures for which Fergus harbors as great an enmity as Stephen Colbert does).