"Brave's" Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald) joins this year's growing gang of onscreen archers. (Disney/Pixar)
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On the face of it, redefining courage as a quality required to repair torn relationships and not merely the ability to face down enemies would seem like an honorable undertaking for a kid-tilted animated feature.
Only in "Brave," the gesture turns out to be less than bold.
Pixar's latest is gorgeous to be sure. And the animation whizzes have once again upped the ante when it comes to what magic can be achieved turning computer code into mesmerizing images. But the company's first movie spotlighting a female protagonist feels like a throwback gussied up as reinvention.
A similar frustration arose with "Snow White and the Huntsman." For all that fairy-tale flick's visual vim and action vigor, the story of a wicked queen and a virginal princess couldn't really take us to fresh places. "Brave" suggests this is a problem less of execution than undertaking. Because if anyone's good at taking us to inventive places it's Pixar.
Which poses the question: Is it time to put to bed the princess story?
The princess in this case is raven-haired Merida, only daughter of King Fergus and Queen Elinor. She is big sis to wee and wild triplet brothers. Kelly Macdonald voices Merida's feisty brogue and bravado.
Billy Connolly gives booming, boisterous voice to King Fergus. The oversized, enthusiastic monarch lost a limb to a bear in a showdown he's only too happy to recount.
This queen is not evil. Instead, Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson) is the upholder of traditions sure to hem in a girl of Merida's adventurous nature.
Mom schools her only daughter in proper behavior. Dad gives her a bow and arrows. It's little wonder "Brave" opened right after Father's Day. Princess Merida is a daddy's lass.
A rift between mother and daughter widens when Merida refuses to be wowed by best scion amid an uninspiring trio of suitors. With the help of a hardly wicked but not-so-helpful witch (Julie Walters), Merida unleashes a spell that changes their relationship even more.
Although Queen Elinor is voiced by one of the best actresses to tease a line of dialogue, the finest bit of magic in "Brave" comes when the queen is turned into a bear who can't talk.
This wondrous, moving creature must rely on the wits of her daughter. For her part, Merida must take care of the human — her human — peering out from behind a pelt.
Technically "Brave" is lovely. The action unfolds in the green vales, lush forests and watery inlets of Scotland. The film is big on place and authenticity. Directors Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman both have Scottish roots. Scotsman Patrick Doyle's score swells and gallops. Gaelic singer Julie Fowlis sings two lilting songs. Though the soundtrack's best, "Learn Me Right," comes by way of Brit folk-rock band Mumford & Sons.
All this care serves as a reminder that Pixar's genius posse takes quality and artistry seriously. But last year's "Cars 2" wasn't an aberration. And the upcoming rerelease of "Finding Nemo" in 3D will only underscore the sense the storytelling behemoth is losing some of its mojo.
Of course, saying that "Brave" is entertaining but not astonishing is pretty much admitting your straight-A student got a B.
Lisa Kennedy: 303-954-1567 or firstname.lastname@example.org
"BRAVE." Directed by Mark Andrews, Brenda Chapman and Steve Purcell. Written by Purcell. Featuring the voices of Kelly Macdonald, Billy Connolly, Emma Thompson, Julie Walters and Craig Ferguson. Rated PG. 95 minutes. At area theaters in 2D and 3D.