Movie review: Pixar’s ‘Brave’ a break with tradition?

Merida, the star of Pixar’s new animated movie “Brave,” isn’t exactly your typical Disney princess. Instead of spending her days in a castle pining for “prince charming,” the Scottish princess (voiced by Kelly Macdonald) loves to be outdoors, riding her horse through open fields, climbing up the side of steep cliffs and practicing archery. She’s strong-willed and fiercely independent — traits that often put her at odds with her mother, Queen Elinor, who’d rather she be a more traditional, demure lady.

The conflict between the mother and daughter comes to a head when Queen Elinor announces the clans of the kingdom will be gathering, and the chiefs’ sons will be competing for Merida’s hand in marriage. Merida hates the idea of a forced betrothal and tries to purchase a spell from a witch that will “change her fate.” However, the spell doesn’t work out quite like she planned, and instead it brings a curse down on her family. The princess must work to heal bonds that have been broken and find a way to save her family’s kingdom before the curse becomes permanent.

Like all Pixar films, “Brave” is gorgeously animated, and the movie perfectly captures the wild beauty of the Scottish landscape. I spent a month in Scotland after graduating from college a few years ago, and I completely fell in love with the country and its rolling green hills and mountains, majestic stone castles and deep blue lochs. The landscape has a certain untamed, almost mystical feeling, like it was pulled straight from the pages of a fantasy novel. The film’s Celtic soundtrack, with bagpipes and folk harp, also reflects the magic of the Scottish culture.

“Brave” has a great cast of voice actors; Kelly Macdonald is joined by Emma Thompson as Queen Elinor, Billy Connolly as King Fergus, and Craig Ferguson, Robbie Coltrane and Kevin McKidd as the leaders of the three clans. And Julie Walters is hilarious as the witch (or “woodcarver,” as she keeps insisting) who sells Merida a spell; there’s a great bit where the witch’s cauldron serves as a sort of “answering machine” when she’s “out of the office” (If you have a question about a spell, pour in vial No. 1; if you’re having unexpected side effects from a spell, pour in vial No. 2; etc.).

The film has a nice amount of humor for both kids and adults. Younger viewers will laugh at the high jinks of Merida’s mischievous triplet brothers, while adults will find amusement in the Scottish chiefs’ constant bickering and attempts to one-up each other.

One thing critics have pointed out is that despite “Brave’s” plucky heroine, the film is a more traditional tale than some of Pixar’s previous offerings. Several of the main plot elements in “Brave” have been used before — a forced betrothal, a curse that must be broken, etc. — and the concept isn’t as quirky or original as a cowboy toy and a sci-fi action figure who become friends (“Toy Story”), monsters who work at a scream factory (“Monsters Inc.”), or a little garbage-collecting robot who goes on a journey through space (“WALL·E”).

However, like all Pixar films, “Brave” has plenty of charm and heart, with characters the audience truly cares about. “Brave” manages to good-naturedly poke fun at the Scots’ reputation for stubbornness and also celebrate their fierce loyalty to family and tradition.

I wish film makers had maybe pushed the concept just a little bit further, but the movie still is a fun, rousing adventure, and a visual treat for those who love Celtic culture and legends.

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