Disney Pixar's 13th animated feature, BRAVE, marks their first foray into fairy-tale adventure with a female protagonist (in this case, princess) in a period setting. Anyone is expecting this oft-seen genre given a refreshing change-of-pace will be disappointed that BRAVE is surprisingly opted for the more familiar route instead. But don't let all those familiarity fools you, because BRAVE happens to work well as a solid and often rousing adventure that is both heartfelt, funny and entertaining.
Set in the highlands of 10th-century Scotland, we first comes to know the red-haired Merida (voiced by Peigi Barker) as a toddler. On her birthday, her father, King Fergus (Billy Connolly) gifted her a bow and subsequently falls in love with it. One day, King Fergus lost his leg fighting a grisly bear trying to terrorize his kingdom while Merida and her mother, Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson) managed to escape as far away as possible.
Years later, Merida (now voiced by Kelly Macdonald) has grown up becoming a skilled archer with a tomboy attitude, even though her mother always urges her to act like a real princess with a lady-like behavior. But the stubborn-minded Merida still prefers to do things her way until one day, her mother announces to her that there will be a traditional planned marriage where a competition will be held among the most eligible bachelors in the land. However Merida isn't interested to get married at all, since she wants to embrace her freedom but her mother keeps pushing her to do so. After she personally ruined the competition by engaging herself in an archery contest and subsequently had a big quarrel with her mother, she runs away into the woods alone.
There, she comes across a series of glowing blue flames that leads to the door of a witch's (Julie Walters) cottage. Knowing that the witch is capable of magic, she asks for a spell to change her mother's mind. The witch grants her wish by giving her an enchanted cake. All Merida have to do is to make her mother eats that cake and her mind will be changed. But unbeknownst to her, her mother falls ill and subsequently transforms herself to a giant bear who is unable to speak while her human conscience remains intact. Now, with the curse threatening to turn her mother into a bear permanently by the second rising of the sun, it's up to her to set things right before it's all too late.
While the story offers nothing special to the genre, BRAVE still benefits from its engaging plot with a particularly poignant mother-and-daughter relationships angle which packed with lots of heart. The voice cast, in the meantime, are top-notch. The most notable of all is of course, Kelly Macdonald's energetic and heartfelt performance as the headstrong Merida. She's an absolute scene-stealer each time she appears in the screen. Equally captivating as well, is Emma Thompson's no-nonsense portrayal as the strict Queen Elinor while Billy Connolly adds some amusing zest to his free-spirited performance as King Fergus.
Likewise, the animation here is exquisitely rendered with such loving detail as we witness how enchanted and mystical the Scottish highlands and the countryside, while the camera's focus on Merida's red-haired corkscrew locks as they flow in the wind, is simply a feast for the eyes. Musically, Scottish composer Patrick Doyle brings an air of dynamism with a mix of bagpipe and strings arrangements throughout the running time. If that's not enough, his music is further enhanced from the lovely ballads by Gaelic folk singer Julie Fowlis which is certainly award-worthy.
Despite all the energy and some emotional resonance (especially the heartfelt third act) successfully depicted in BRAVE, it still falls short as one of the studio's best efforts. It's quite a crime that BRAVE is lack of true villain here (even the presence of the witch herself is more of an afterthought) and doesn't have that social consciousness often found in most Pixar movies. Creative peak may have been totally out of question here, but at least it's a mile better than last year's lackluster effort of CARS 2.