June 25, 2012

MOVIES: Brave (Mark Andrews & Brenda Chapman, 2012)

Brave breaks some new ground for Pixar. It's their first movie with a female lead character (and in fact, all of the most important characters are women), their first venture into Disney's princess territory, and their first fairy tale. It's also a much darker movie than the pre-release advertising has suggested.

The setting is Scotland, where Princess Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald) is rebelling against Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson); poor King Fergus (Billy Connolly) is caught in the middle, wanting both of the women in his life to be happy. It's as realistic a look at mother-daughter relationships as we've gotten from any movie in quite some time; the anger and hostility that flare up are sharp and painful.

And Merida only gets angrier when Elinor informs her that the eldest sons of the three local lords (the lords are voiced by Kevin McKidd, Robbie Coltrane, and Craig Ferguson, in delightful small performances) are coming to compete for her hand in marriage. She refuses to cooperate, finds a loophole, and flees into the forest.

That's where the movie takes some unexpected turns. Without giving too much away, let's just say that there is a witch (Julie Walters) and a spell that -- surprise, surprise -- does not have the expected results, changing the relationship between Merida and her mother in ways that test them both.

The elements of the story are all familiar from various fairy tales, but they're combined here in interesting ways, and directors Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman aren't afraid to let the story get very dark. There's a thrilling hunt scene set on a dark, rainy night that is genuinely frightening and suspenseful. I wouldn't take very small children to the movie; there were a few at the theater when I saw the movie on Saturday, and there was a fair amount of terrified wailing at certain moments.

There's also the obligatory comic relief, of course. Billy Connolly is delightful as King Fergus, trying frantically to hold things together as the fights between his wife and daughter grow increasingly more heated. Merida's small brothers, triplets who wander the castle causing mischief, are quite funny, not over-used, and given an important role in the story at just the right moment. The witch's shtick occasionally ventures just a bit too close to Shrek-like pop culture jokes, but her scenes are relatively brief.

This is a fine return to form after the horrid Cars 2. And the movie's preceded by the lovely short "La Luna," which was nominated for an Oscar last year; it's a charmer about a young boy entering the family business, finding his own way to do things while honoring his father's and grandfather's traditions.

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