A version of this review appeared in The Age, June 21, 2012.
For almost as long as the Pixar animation studio have been in business, they've had complaints about gender representation. The Toy Stories were essentially buddy movies, centred on the friendship between Woody the cowboy and Buzz the spaceman – who cared, or even noticed, when Woody's girlfriend Bo Peep vanished in the third instalment?
Pixar is unlikely to appease its feminist critics with this strange, compromised revisionist fairy tale – compromised in the sense that the original director, Brenda Chapman, was taken off the project and replaced by the team of Mark Andrews and Steve Purcell. Like many children's films, Brave begins as a fable about a young non-conformist: in this case, the tomboy Princess Merida, voiced by Kelly McDonald, who lives in a fairy-tale version of medieval Scotland.
Quite reasonably, Merida is more interested in learning archery from her boisterous dad (Billy Connelly) than listening to her mother (Emma Thompson) talk about the duties of a lady. In the film's first act, this seems to pay off: faced with the prospect of an arranged marriage, Merida challenges her unlovely suitors to match her prowess, and triumphantly carries the day.
But then the plot takes an odd turn. After a row with her mother, Merida races into a dark forest in pursuit of a will o' the wisp. Here she encounters a witch (Julie Walters), makes a disastrous bargain, and spends the rest of the film trying to repair the damage. In other words, what begins as a heroic narrative ends as a cautionary tale, the net effect of which is to put Merida firmly in her place. Having nowhere to go storywise, Brave peaks emotionally in its second act, then declines (like many Pixar films) into a string of knockabout chase sequences; the take-home message is that it's possible to combine innovation with respect for tradition, a corporate moral if there ever was one.
Technically speaking, Brave is as impressive as anything Pixar have done – in its attention to the nuances of facial expression and in its handling of visually tricky subjects such as curling smoke or Merida's unruly hair. But none of this virtuosity makes the story any more enjoyable or less dubious. Ironically under the circumstances, the liveliest characters are Merida's younger brothers, mute red-haired scamps who pop up like Alvin and the Chipmunks whenever there's a chance of causing trouble.