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I've nurtured a crush on Scottish actress Kelly Macdonald since I first saw her molesting Ewan McGregor's fish-belly white wastrel in Danny Boyle's Trainspotting back when heroin, Elastica, and Irvine Welsh were still cool. Now, with the release of this 13th feature from Pixar, I seem to have the quivers for her all over again – or rather, her digital, 3-D animated character: the Scottish princess Merida. It's the hair, frankly. An unruly spillage of radiant coppery coilings that both surrounds and belies her noble bearings, this is surely a 'do to die for. Feisty, borderline bratty, and peerless with a bow and arrow, Merida could give Artemis a run for her drachmas and take down Cupid at 500 paces. More William Tell than William Burroughs (thankfully), she's a teenage, Scottish Highlander version of Errol Flynn's athletic Robin melded to Olivia de Havilland's sassy Marion, and she's Pixar's finest and most fully realized female character to date.
Brave also marks the first time Pixar has placed a woman at the helm of a feature film (Brenda Chapman also co-wrote the script). It’s a savvy decision since this is, at its center, a story about the oft-thorny thickets of love between a mother and daughter. Set in Braveheart-era Scotland, Merida is vocally peeved by the prearranged wedding plans set in motion by her father, King Fergus (Connolly), and mother, Queen Elinor (Thompson), whereby the young, peacocking progeny of neighboring clans vie for her affections in a series of sporting challenges. Vexed by the unfairness of it all (totally uneasy lies this head that shall someday wear a crown), Merida runs off one day and follows a trail of will o' the wisps to a witch's sod-thatched hut. There, she is given a magic cake that will "change" her mother's mind regarding the pending nuptials. Change Queen Elinor it does, although not as Merida hoped. In the grand tradition of being careful what one wishes for, the queen is transformed into a towering black bear (while still retaining her human mind, but only for 48 hours). King Fergus, having lost one leg to an ursine behemoth years before, is busy hosting the assembled clans, but it proves impossible to conceal the hirsute, 9-foot tall matriarch for long. Pixar's patented blend of heartstring-tugging pathos and derring-do ensue.
Brave looks and sounds like pure Pixar, but the story – what with witches, magicked confections, and spooky forests – puts it squarely in Walt Disney's once-upon-a-time fairy-tale land. Despite the consistently awe-inspiring animation – the 3-D is extremely well handled – and an immensely sympathetic heroine, Brave lacks the sheer imaginative oomph of prior Pixar pics like Up and WALL-E. It feels more like an obscure Brothers Grimm yarn than one of John Lasseter's serpentine emotional roller coasters. Still, the core family relationships ring pleasingly true, and the rebellious Merida is, alongside Katniss Everdeen, an intelligent, capable, and empathetic proto-riot grrrl with stupifyingly kickass hair and even better aim.