** (out of four)
Like the spawn of “Felicity”-era Keri Russell and Carrot Top, Princess Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald) sports a tremendous crop of red-orange curls about which she feels no vanity. This Scottish girl concerns herself only with proving her archery skills and, just like Felicity Porter and countless other big- and small-screen heroines, finding her own destiny in spite of the plan her parents set out for her.
Merida’s mom, Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson), insists that Merida follow tradition and allow three suitors to compete for her hand in marriage. (Her dad, voiced by Billy Connolly, spends less time advising his daughter than telling and re-telling the tale of when a bear tore off his leg.) Merida’s hasty attempt to change her mom’s priorities lands on a long list of “Be careful what you wish for” fables. It also feels like the film’s four writers realize that this uncommonly earthbound, human-driven Pixar story needs magic and wonder, pronto, or it risks becoming yet another allegory of a kid who doesn’t appreciate her parents’ devotion and parents who just don’t understand.
That’s exactly what happens, though. Without the laughs and freewheeling imagination of Pixar’s best (including “Ratatouille” and “Toy Story 3”) or even second-tier efforts (“Up”), the ordinary fable “Brave” gives the studio’s first female main character no new lessons or unexpected territory to explore. She splits an arrow with another arrow “Robin Hood”-style and experiences all of the usual torment and regret that comes with being a teenager. The film’s setting and accents recall Dreamworks’ “How to Train Your Dragon,” but fail to offer the same breathtaking visuals of that film’s aerial beauty. The wit comes rarely in “Brave,” which does include a clever use of a cooked chicken’s shadow to imitate an angry bear but also incorporates pathetic gags involving bare butts and getting hit in the face.
“Brave” represents a minor recovery from the wildly misguided “Cars 2,” but Pixar’s latest adventure still suggests a major storytelling downshift that needs fixing now. Two’s a problem; three’s a trend.
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