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If any other studio had made "Brave," it would be hailed as a fine animated movie with sumptuous visuals, artful animation, engaging characters and a thoughtful message about love and family.
But because "Brave" is from Pixar Animation Studios, that doesn't feel like enough. When that trademark table lamp bounces across the screen, it raises the expectation level to the dizzying heights of classics such as "Wall-E," "Finding Nemo," "The Incredibles," "Up" and "Toy Story." "Brave" moves smoothly and swiftly, but it never soars.
Set in medieval Scotland, "Brave" centers on Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald), a headstrong teen princess who would rather practice her archery than submit to the etiquette lessons her mother, Elinor (voiced by Emma Thompson), insists a proper lady must take. When Merida's father, King Fergus (voiced by Billy Connolly), calls together the four clans of his kingdom, it's so they can put up a suitor to marry Merida whether she likes it or not.
Merida most certainly doesn't like it and angers Elinor when she says so. After a tearful mother-daughter argument, Merida rides out to the woods where she follows a trail of mystical wills o' the wisp to a witch's cottage. Merida asks the witch (voiced by Julie Walters) to cast a spell "to change my fate." The witch does, leading to consequences Merida could never have imagined.
(Let me take a moment here to compliment Disney's marketing department for not giving away the plot past this point. It's a rare occurrence these days, and one other studios should repeat.)
When "Brave" is working, it's a smartly sweet emotional journey between Merida and Elinor, given much warmth by the voice performances of Macdonald and Thompson (who co-starred, you might remember, in the first "Nanny McPhee" movie). The movie's original director, Brenda Chapman (who co-directed "The Prince of Egypt" for DreamWorks), deserves credit for creating (as Pixar's first female lead character) a princess who doesn't fit the Disney mold someone who's the author of her own life, not waiting for a charming prince to change her life. (Also, unlike most Disney heroines, both of her parents are alive.)
"Brave" falters slightly in its story, which is slight in comparison with past Pixar movies. (The script is credited to four writers, including Chapman and Mark Andrews, a Pixar veteran who took over as director.) The supporting characters deliver some laughs, but don't carry much weight.
Visually, "Brave" is a feast, from the lush highland greenery to the scary bear that is King Fergus' longtime nemesis. The most stunning visual effect is Merida's hair, an untamed mane of wavy red locks that's as much a part of her character as Macdonald's voice. (A caveat: Save your money and see "Brave" in 2-D. The 3-D effects are negligible, and the nighttime forest scenes may get rather murky in the reduced light.)
"Brave" will provide you and your family a good time, with laughs and a few surprises. If that seems like faint praise, it's only because Pixar is capable of so much more.
Pixar's latest adventure, about a Scottish princess after a wayward wish, is good stuff by anyone's standards except Pixar's.
Where • Theaters everywhere.
When • Opens Friday, June 22.
Rating • PG for some scary action and rude humor.
Running time • 100 minutes; plus a 7-minute short, "La Luna."