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Wholehearted 'Brave' a safe, stylish fairy tale

12:44 AM, Jun. 22, 2012
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Merida, voiced by Kelly Macdonald, appears in a scene from the animated motion picture 'Brave.' / Disney/Pixar

‘Brave’

★ ★ ½ (fair to good)
Rated: PG for some scary action and rude humor.

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“Brave” is either a welcome throwback to old-time animated fairy tales — albeit one with all the latest high-tech advantages — or a stalling pattern for Pixar, depending on how you look at it.

In a vacuum it’s the former, the story of a princess who refuses to have her life manipulated by sexist tradition. She decides to forge her own way but gets a little ahead of herself, causing trouble.

But films don’t exist in a vacuum, of course. We expect surprises from Pixar, things we haven’t seen before. (Well, we hadn’t seen a bad movie from the studio until last year’s “Cars 2,” so that was new, but that’s not what I meant.)

You won’t find a lot of jaw-dropping elements in “Brave.” But what you will find is really well done. Is that enough? For me, sure. I expect a lot from Pixar. But it’s possible we expect too much. If you get to the place where you can’t enjoy a good, well-made movie because it’s from the studio that gave us “Toy Story,” “Up” and “The Incredibles,” you might need to rethink things.

The film begins in Scotland with a birthday party for little Princess Merida (voice of Kelly Macdonald), thrown by her father, King Fergus (Billy Connolly), and mother, Elinor (Emma Thompson). Fergus gives Merida a bow and arrow as a gift, and she loves it. But a bear attack mars the party and leaves Fergus with a fake leg.

We then move forward in time. Fergus is now the Bear King, his life and castle a testament to defeating the creature who took his leg. Merida is a young woman, headstrong, who clearly has gotten better as an archer. To her mother’s chagrin, Merida has little use for the traditional princess roles. This becomes especially apparent when it is time for her to marry — she’ll wed the winner of a series of contests played out among princes.

Or not. The contestants for her hand are a sorry lot, and Merida has no intention of walking down the aisle with some half-witted dope. So, frustrated, she flees on her horse, following will-o’-the-wisps into the forest, who lead her to the home of a witch (Julie Walters), who grants Merida the wish she so longs for — to change her mother, in hopes of avoiding a marriage she doesn’t want.

Well that’s not a good idea. You needn’t have read a lot of legends and fairy tales to know that witches are never going to play by the book. Elinor is changed, all right — changed in a rather ironic way, and hardly in the way Merida had hoped. Yes, this is by-the-book fairy tale fare, but there’s a reason people keep telling these kinds of stories. It’s because they’re good. They mean something. Merida will have to rely on her wits and wiles to save her mother and restore the kingdom. Of course she will. Why wouldn’t she?

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