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Princess Merida demonstrates her superior archery skills.
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★★★★✩

Brave

Pixar Animation Studios

Directed by Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman

Rated G

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Meet Merida, a spunky, fiery-headed young princess, and the first female star of a Pixar film in the 17 years the studio has been making movies.

Since she is Pixar’s first female lead, I expected a lot from Merida. Even though the film is set in a Medieval Scottish castle, I didn’t think Merida would end up in the typical Disney princess damsel-in-distress role — she doesn’t. I was curious how the character would walk the line between being an empowering female figure that girls could look up to in 2012 and remaining a princess in the 10th century.

Indeed, this dilemma becomes the central conflict of the story. Merida’s only desires in life are to explore the countryside and practice her archery. She brushes off her mother’s attempts to groom her into a perfect lady, instead preferring to create mischief with her three younger brothers. But when her mother decides it’s time for Merida to wed a son from a rival clan, Merida panics and tries to escape her “fate.”

It’s a classic setup to which most people can relate: The child wants to be free and control their own fate, while the parent is rooted in tradition and wants to keep the child in his or her proper place. By framing the conflict between Merida and her mother as the central issue of the movie, Brave gives itself a premise to which most viewers can connect. However, by grounding itself in a 21st (and 20th) century problem, Brave loses some of its grandeur it could have achieved with a story set in the time of knights and witches.

Just a few minutes into the movie, it becomes clear that the film is more a coming of age and family drama than the epic adventure the trailer seemed to promise. Instead of revolving around an arduous journey, Brave focuses on the dynamic between Merida and her mother, and the ensuing disaster when the princess tries to use magic to artificially change her destiny to avoid marriage.

Though the plot is not the quest you might expect, it is still a touching story of a family coming together. While the movie ignores some of the potential of the Medieval setting, it does allow for some clever parallels (and well-placed anachronisms). Queen Elinor chastises her daughter for leaving her bow on the table instead of telling her to mind her elbows. A cauldron serves as a witch’s answering machine, and when Merida has an outburst of adolescent anger she goes storming off on a giant stallion — much like an upset teenager zooming away in the family car.

Visually, Brave is beautiful. Pixar redid their animation engine for the movie, and the effort shows. The landscapes in the movie are some of the most stunning in any animated film to date, and the opening scene when Merida rides through the kingdom is particularly memorable.

The movie is certainly cute, but it won’t pull on your heartstrings in the manner of Up and it isn’t as funny as Monsters, Inc. Though it’s no Toy Story 3, the ending of Brave is still moving, and overall the film is worth a watch.

Merida may not be the Hun-fighting powerhouse that Mulan is, but she is still a stronger female than most Disney princesses since she is willing to take her fate into her own hands. It’s a good lesson and a refreshing break from the often stale princess-in-a-castle type stories.