Brave (Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, PG)

220px-Brave Soundtrack Cover

The reason for Brave’s PG rating? It’s actually weirdly scary.

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The Cars movies excepted, about the only criticism Pixar as a company or any of its films have ever had to endure is that they’re too light on females. They seem to have few to no females in high positions in their offices, and their films generally have practically no good female roles. To take one example of many, look at 2009’s otherwise excellent Up; OK, maybe we can overlook the fact that Carl outlived his wife—usually the wife outlives the husband, but whatever. And maybe we can overlook the fact that it’s a young boy who stows away on his floating house. But why is it that even none of the dogs in Paradise Falls are female? How do they reproduce, anyway?

So, yeah, the lack of women both in front of (figuratively speaking) and behind the camera has been Pixar’s one big plague since its inception, particularly in recent years. In that regard, the studio’s newest film Brave seems like a direct response to that criticism. The main character, Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald) is a female, and the script was more or less written and directed by Brenda Chapman, also clearly a female. And the story is sort of feminist-light: One of Merida’s big struggles is that she wants to be defined by who she is and what she can do, not simply by who she marries. In fact, she’d rather not marry at all.

The problem is Merida’s a princess, and therefore there’s undue pressure on her to marry, particularly from her mother, Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson). In a fit of teenaged rebellion, Merida defies her mother after a particularly unpleasant encounter with a trio of potential suitors, and goes into the woods to ride her horse and play with her beloved bow and arrows, a formative present from her father, King Fergus (Billy Connolly), many years prior. While in the woods, she follows some will-o’-the-wisps and eventually lands at a witch’s house, where she requests a spell to change her mother’s mind about the daughter’s right to choose her own path in life. What the witch gives her, though, turns out to be a spell to turn Mom (Queen Elinor) into a bear, which is particularly dangerous, given the kingdom’s predilection toward hunting bears. Merida spends the rest of the movie trying to undo the damage she’s caused.

While, on the whole, Brave works well—it’s about on par with the average Pixar movie, say A Bug’s Life or Monsters, Inc., but nowhere near the studio’s best work (though, of course, an average Pixar movie is better than just about anything else you’ll see all year)—there does seem to be a bit of a struggle on the Pixar team’s side to get used to the idea of having a female lead. For one thing, you might notice Brave has a PG rating, which is unusual (though not unheard of) for a Pixar film. The reason? It’s actually weirdly scary. There are a lot of visceral bear encounters, and they’re spread throughout the movie; it gets worse toward the end, when Queen Elinor is the bear that is being hunted, unbeknownst to the hunters. At the press screening I attended, on more than one occasion I could hear a child literally beg their parents to bring them home—they sounded completely terrified. I wonder if this level of scariness was employed to balance out the female lead to the film’s potential young male viewers. Regardless, the scariness worked for me, but if you’ll be bringing young ones with you, be warned.

Elsewhere, you may have heard that, partway through production, Brenda Chapman was removed by Pixar and replaced by Mark Andrews, which doesn’t bode well for the longevity of Pixar’s relationship with major female artists. They even give Andrews the first director nod in the end credits. Even so, Chapman remains a Pixar employee, so we’ll have to wait and see how this one plays out.

Aside from the scariness factor, Brave takes its cues from many recognizable films. You’ll probably spot shades of The Princess Bride, Princess Mononoke (Pixar execs have long said that Hayao Miyazaki is a huge influence on their work), and The Fox and the Hound over the course of Brave’s duration. And this being a Pixar movie, the animation is top of the line; in terms of computer animation, we’ve yet to see better than what Pixar is capable of, and the character design and animation of Merida (particularly her hair) makes the recent non-Pixar Disney production Tangled look like absolute crap by comparison.

And one final, digressive thought: I spent the whole movie up until the credits trying to figure out what the main character’s name was. It’s an unusual name in the first place, Merida, and it is spoken in exclusively Scottish accents throughout. Unless you know what they’re saying, it sounds very much like “merde,” which is, of course, the French word for “shit.” Trying to solve that puzzle routinely took me out of the movie; don’t let the same fate fall upon you. | Pete Timmermann

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