The heroine of the new Disney/Pixar animated film "Brave" has a remarkably unruly head of hair -- fiery red, with lengthy curls that threaten to spring away from their roots. This hairstyle is a telling characteristic, one that neatly describes the personality of the teenage girl underneath it.
"Brave" is Pixar's 13th animated film, but their first quote-unquote "fairy tale." Co-directed by Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman, it's the story of Merida (voiced by Kelly MacDonald), a Scottish Highlands princess, who chafes under her mother Elinor's (Emma Thompson) instructional insistence that she learn to act like a lady. Merida, if she had her druthers, would likely be more like her father, the burly Fergus (Billy Connolly), whose leanest limb is the ornate peg leg he earned during a legendary battle with a seemingly immortal bear the kingdom knows as Mor'du.
Merida and Elinor frequently spar over the girl's place in the world, but the battle comes to a head when the mother tells the daughter that she is to be betrothed. There are four clans that form the kingdom, and the other three clan leaders are coming to the castle -- each with first-born sons in tow -- to compete for her hand. Merida can't stand the idea of not being allowed to choose her own suitor, so after handily defeating each of the young men in an archery competition (to her mother's displeasure) and accidentally damaging a family tapestry (something that hurts her mother even more), the girl races alone into the wilderness. There she stumbles upon the cottage of an old -- and odd -- woodcarver-slash-witch, who agrees to provide Merida a spell that will "change her fate."
I won't spoil what happens next; suffice it to say, if you know the basic mechanics of fairy tales that involve fate-changing magic spells, you can probably parse out what happens and to whom, at least to a certain point. What I will say is that the film, even though it follows a standard playbook, pays off in a satisfying -- and even moving -- way.
The relationship between the mother and daughter is played out honestly, and in modern terms -- Elinor is no cruel tyrant, Merida is not a perfect creature. The mother longs for the early days, when her daughter clung more tightly to her; the daughter wants to be allowed to make her own choices in life and can't see why her mother is so insistent that she alter her behavior. In a key early sequence, the parent and child debate each other about the situation they are in, but only while at a distance that prevents them from actually communicating. It's only after the spell has taken effect that Elinor and Merida are forced to spend the time together that will help them learn about each other and finally understand why they've struggled.
I don't want to give the impression that "Brave" is a heavy movie about generational relationships; while that material is there, there's also a bunch of genuinely funny scenes, many of which surround Merida's young brothers. The nearly-silent identical triplets, with their own merry mounds of curly red hair -- and a taste for pastries by the plateful -- are a delightfully mischievous bunch, providing some big, welcome laughs.
"Brave" also looks terrific, which is no surprise -- Pixar knows how to make places look truly extraordinary. The colors and shapes of the sometimes lush, sometimes rugged, Scottish Highlands are rendered beautifully on-screen, and the character animation is terrific, too. Again, you only have to look at Merida's perfectly imperfect hair to appreciate the work that Pixar's people do.
I had a great time during "Brave." It's not my all-time favorite of the baker's dozen that Pixar has produced, feature-wise, but it's certainly not the least of the list. Three and a half stars (out of four).
Note: Before the feature, there's a presentation of an Oscar-nominated short film from the studio called "La Luna." It's a tender and lyrical confection about three generations taking in the nighttime sky. More sweet than funny, "La Luna" is an altogether lovely lead-in to "Brave."
Content advisory: "Brave" is rated PG for some scary action and rude humor. There are some rough-and-tumble fight scenes with a bear that wields its realistic claws and fangs and animal rage -- put it another (albeit made-up) way, there's some brief, sorta-scary bear-ness here. And since this movie's set in long-ago Scotland, there's also another kind of brief, sorta-scary bareness here (hence the "rude humor" tag).