Pixar has been in a little slump. For an amazingly imaginative decade or so, John Lasseter's animation studio enjoyed a run of features whose quality and popularity are unparalleled in film history, including seven wholly original movies--Monsters, Inc.; Finding Nemo; The Incredibles; Cars; Ratatouille; WALLE; and Up--between the two terrific Toy Story sequels. Last year, though, Pixar crashed into artistic subordinariness with Cars 2 (code name: Ishcar). The shadow of mortality grew darker still with John Carter, the live-action Disney flop from Nemo and WALLE director Andrew Stanton. With Brave, the Lasseter gang's first original story since Up in 2009, Pixar could use a rebound to the effortless mastery that its admirers expect of it.
Brave provides a nice bounce in that direction. The story--about a rebellious princess who battles an imperious queen and is beset by magic spells--is a twist for Pixar but as familiar to its parent company, Disney, as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Beauty and the Beast. Pixar's old-boy network had never designed a feature film around a female character, never assigned a woman to direct one. The resolve to do both was just half realized: the heroine, a Scottish teen named Merida, was retained, but director Brenda Chapman (who co-directed DreamWorks' The Prince of Egypt in 1998) was removed halfway through in favor of Mark Andrews, a Pixar veteran who served as a co-writer and the second-unit director of John Carter.
Replacing the person in charge is a Pixar tradition (it happened on Toy Story 2, Ratatouille, WALLE and Cars 2), but the creative tension between two directors is evident from the tug of tones in Brave's telling: part hearty, part heartfelt. The movie spends its first half in brawny Highlands humor--fighting, carousing, spit takes, guy stuff--before abruptly left-turning into the primal bonding of mother and daughter.
In ancient Scotland, Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald) is a lass as wild as her curly red mane. An expert in archery, like The Hunger Games' Katniss, Merida feels closer to the bear-hunting machismo of her father King Fergus (Billy Connolly) than to the civilizing demands of her mother Elinor (Emma Thompson). Rejecting three unsuitable suitors the queen has lined up for her, Merida visits a witch (Julie Walters), whose magic upends the girl's life--and the movie's.
(SUPERSERIOUS SPOILER ALERT: if you talk to your kids about this before they see the film, they'll never forgive you.) The magic spell gives Elinor the shape of a bear, and Brave instantly comes into its own organic life. The body-switch plot device isn't novel, though most films introduce the element earlier. But here it allows for winning behavioral comedy--the image of the ursine queen trying to keep her tiara on straight, the ladylike patting of her mouth after she devours her first live fish--that gives way to poignancy, as the Elinor inside fights the feral impulses seizing her. Kids have often thought of their parents as beasts, and when Brave turns into My Mother the Bear, it taps both maternal helplessness and the love a child feels for any wounded creature, even a mom.