Pixar Animation Studios/Walt Disney Pictures
Merida, voiced by Kelly Macdonald, in “Brave.” More Photos »
The riotous mass of bouncy curls that crowns Merida, the free-to-be-me heroine of the new Pixar movie, “Brave,” is a marvel of computer imagineering. A rich orange-red the color of ripe persimmon, Merida’s hair doesn’t so much frame her pale, creamy face as incessantly threaten to engulf it, the thick tendrils and fuzzy whorls radiating outward like a sunburst. There’s so much beauty, so much untamed animation in this hair that it makes Merida look like a hothead, a rebel, the little princess who wouldn’t and didn’t. Then again, Rapunzel has a supernice head of hair too.
From her wild and woolly locks to her Clydesdale, the gorgeous high-stepper Angus on whom she races across the softly rendered Scottish hills and glens, Merida has been created as somewhat of an anti-Rapunzel (at least before Rapunzel received a girl-power makeover for Disney’s 2010 movie “Tangled”). Merida is active instead of passive, a doer rather than a gal who hangs around the castle waiting for Prince Charming to rescue her. More to the point and to the movie’s marketing, she is Pixar’s first female protagonist, which means that there’s a lot more riding on her head than that ginger mop. After 17 years of feature filmmaking and 12 box-office hits, Pixar has — ta-da! — entered the big business of little girls.
It hasn’t been easy, to judge by the deep divide between the movie’s seductive pictorial splendor and its discouragingly uninspired script by Mark Andrews, Steve Purcell, Brenda Chapman and Irene Mecchi. (Ms. Chapman, the first woman hired to direct a Pixar feature, either left or was removed from “Brave” and now shares directing credit with Mr. Andrews.) Based on a story by Ms. Chapman, the 3-D movie takes off with Merida, liltingly voiced by Kelly Macdonald, in teenage rebel mode. Merida adores riding her horse and, like Katniss Everdeen, she’s a crack shot with a bow. (She aims for fun, not for dinner.) The only burr in her happy-go-lucky life is her mother, Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson), who wants her to be a lady and polices her behavior accordingly.
The queen is a drag, but she becomes a menace when she announces that the local clan leaders will be popping by so that their sons can compete for Merida’s hand. Furious that she has no say in the matter, Merida pushes back at her mother, or rather at the matrimonial law the queen seemingly upholds by herself while her husband, King Fergus (Billy Connolly), goofs from his throne. But when defiance doesn’t do, Merida asks for help from a witch (Julie Walters), who, in a charmingly conceived and choreographed episode with a burbling caldron, a quorking crow and ye olde toil and trouble, offers a quirky spell that sidelines the queen. When Merida realizes that she may lose her mother permanently, though, she sets out to rescue her and, by extension, her family.
It’s easy to see why Merida prefers galloping into the world to sitting pretty at home. Early on there’s a scene in which she jumps in the saddle and races into a wonderland painted green and splashed with purple. She’s a wee thing, about the size of one of Angus’s feathered legs, but her flaming hair and fiery daring — she shoots from the saddle, bull’s-eyeing targets — make her seem bigger. When she takes a breather, surveying the land (this is her land, you sense) while Angus rolls on the grass like a puppy, you see her at peace with herself. It’s a welcome, unusually introspective interlude that slips into the ecstatic when she scrambles up a rock wall and twirls on its summit, laughing, happy, free and alone.
This extended peek at Merida’s blissfully intimate reverie makes both her inner and outer worlds vividly present and alive. You see what she sees and loves, and later, when she rebels against the queen, you understand what’s at stake for her: pleasure, independence, transcendence. The animation, particularly in the outdoor scenes, can be transfixing with the photorealist details — every blade of grass and each hair in Angus’s mane looks perfectly individuated — blending seamlessly with the cartoon impressionism. There’s an especially enchanting moment during Merida’s long ride when she and Angus leap across a fallen tree, her hair streaming behind her, its tumbling loveliness mirroring both the surrounding forest thicket and the flowing hair on the horse’s legs.
The association of Merida with the natural world accounts for some of the movie’s most beautifully animated sequences, and in other, smarter or maybe just braver, hands it might have also inspired new thinking about women, men, nature and culture. Here, however, the nature-culture divide is drawn along traditional gender lines. The slim, tidy Elinor serves as the custodian of a dreary feminine realm, which for Merida means hours indoors, being groomed and learning lessons, while the freakishly large Fergus represents a rambunctious, barely domesticated masculine world of huge appetites, tall tales and unruly laughter. Fergus gives Merida a bow and teaches her to shoot in the great outdoors; Elinor primly (and amusingly) tells her daughter, “A lady does not place her weapon on the table.”
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