"Brave" is right.
The title not only describes the fiery-haired heroine of Pixar's newest animated fantasy adventure, it ties in nicely with the filmmakers' courage in sidestepping the stodgy clichés found in classic Walt Disney princess pictures.
"Brave"★ ★ ★ ½
Starring: Kelly Macdonald, Emma Thompson, Billy Connolly, Robbie Coltrane, Craig Ferguson, Julie Walters
Directed by: Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman
Other: A Walt Disney release. Rated PG. 85 minutes
True love triumphs over all?
A dashing prince saves his princess?
Good defeats evil?
Somebody kills a dragon? A witch? A demon?
No again, but the plot does involve a magic spell and a really scary giant bear.
"Brave" tells the tale of two strong women -- a queen and her young princess -- whose obvious love for each other becomes forgotten in a generational contest of wills.
In an ancient Scottish kingdom, Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson, effecting a strained Scottish brogue) quietly rules with fairness, strength and political savvy while her one-legged warrior hubby King Fergus (Billy Connolly, effecting his usual perfect Scottish brogue) bumbles about, believing he's actually in charge.
Since childhood, Fergus has treated his daughter Merida (Kelly Macdonald) as a son, although she has a set of younger triplet brothers barely out of diapers.
The king teaches Merida many things, mainly how to be a superior archer and survivor, and she becomes quite the fetching tomboy, running wild with her horse Angus and practicing her archery skills with machine-like precision.
Elinor constantly attempts to teach Merida the finer points of being royalty, but the redheaded rebel will have none of the traditions forced upon her. Especially the one where regal suitors from the neighboring kingdoms arrive at Fergus' castle to compete for the hand of his princess.
Merida defies custom and the queen by rejecting her obligations to marry one of the uncharming princes offered by the clans.
Then, in a youthful fit of righteousness, Merida follows some magical creatures called wisps into the forest, where she finds a mysterious old woman (voiced by Julie Walters) carving strange images out of wood.
The woman agrees to sell Merida a magic spell that will change her mother's point of view, but of course, we suspect that it will do much more than that. And it does.
The potion turns the queen into a giant black bear, exactly like the one that tore off the king's leg during an attack.
The shocked Merida (what did she think the spell would do, anyway?) not only has to protect her mother from the ursine-phobic king, she's got just two sunrises before the transformation becomes permanent.
That's unbearable to the now-regretful princess.
"Brave" ups the tension with confrontations between bears and humans, violent, scary events rendered even more visceral by the film's effective use of 3-D imagery.
These are accompanied by a rousing score from Patrick Doyle (born in Scotland) on a soundtrack that lacks the folksiness of Randy Newman tunes, but gains the willowy ballads of Gaelic folk singer Julie Fowlis.
"Brave" creates some stunning imagery on the screen, especially Merida's red tresses blowing in the wind, and Elinor's bear lumbering through the too-small castle corridors.
Although the animators occasionally fall into clunky "Matrix"-like slow motion, the swooping zooms and tracking shots boost the adrenaline levels with eye-popping ocular thrills.
This movie, credited to directors Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman (he replaced her in October of 2010, Variety reported), pushes the PG-rating not only in terms of fierce fighting, but in the humorously naughty way the men doff their kilts to escape imprisonment. (Caution: They don't use underwear!)
"Brave" is quick and funny, and just heartfelt enough to keep us engaged with its stock characters in a fresh and reinvented narrative.
In the end, the right of a woman to choose her destiny (read: husband) is affirmed, and Merida even brings her conservative king father around to her new thinking.
"You must win her heart before you can win her hand," he says.
Here, of course, the hearts have already been won, not by lovers, but by a mother and a daughter whose repeated pleas of "Listen" become the movie's mantra.
Note: Enrico Casarosa's fantastic, animated Oscar-nominated short "La Luna" is shown before "Brave." It's a little piece of magic.