The first non-sequel created since the merger of Pixar and Disney, Brave leans heavily, sometimes uneasily, toward the latter half of that equation. It’s not just that the film has a female hero (Pixar’s first), or that it’s a mythological quasi-period piece (ditto), but that the story lacks the elegant lines and rock-solid structure that — more than their pioneering use of CGI animation — are the studio’s hallmark.
The story begins on familiar ground: Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald) is a 10th-century Scottish princess with flaming hair and a temper to match, which means that when her mother (Emma Thompson) announces she’s to be married to a neighboring clan’s son, she objects on the strongest possible terms. (A bow and arrow is involved, as well as the collision of a short sword and a prized tapestry.) But the climax to that story — Merida out-shoots her suitors, and claims the right to her own hand — comes at the end of the first reel, and when that act of defiance doesn’t fly, Merida flees into the woods, where a witch offers her a classic fairy-tale bargain: Feed this cake to your mother and your fate will change — and, oh, did I forget the part about her changing into an enormous bear?
The scenes that follow, whether mother and daughter finally managed to communicate despite the fact that one of them can only roar, have a grace and beauty sometimes absent from the film’s more calculated sequences, and the outdoor setting gives the film’s spacious 3D a chance to shine. (Pixar rewrote their software for the first time in 15 years, and it shows.) Rather than get lost in the uncanny valley, the filmmakers find a look closer to stop-motion puppetry than not-quite-there humanism; Merida’s curly hair looks, delightfully, as if it’s made from pipe cleaners and snarled yarn. It may be closer to Tangled than WALL-E, but that merely means emulating one form of greatness rather than another.