Can it really be true that through a dozen films, Pixar—the North American animation titan celebrated for its multilayered storytelling and uncommonly complex characters—declined to come up with a single female protagonist? Indeed it is: For almost two decades now, the studio has been staging one long cartoon stag party. Until seeing Brave, the company's 13th feature and its first charged by a current of girl power, it never occurred to me that all of Pixar's most memorable creations, whether taking the form of an adolescent clownfish, a rodent gourmand or a cantankerous Joe Paterno look-alike, are, in fact, dudes.
Maybe it's the bias of my Y chromosome talking, but that fact has hardly ever seemed to matter. In the same way Pixar's movies refuse to speak down to the youngest members of their audience, they've also never pandered to gender: Remember, the Toy Story franchise ended with Andy, the benevolent overlord of Buzz Lightyear and Woody the cowboy, bequeathing his boyhood playthings to the little girl next door. Its stories, themes and emotions are not illustrated in stark hues of pink and blue. They resonate as universally human, even when the star is a sentient trash compactor.
Still, introducing a touch of femininity to the anthropomorphic sausage fest should register as a progressive step forward. But Brave is the most conventional movie the studio has yet produced. A fable pitched directly at the princess demographic, it's set in medieval Scotland, features run-ins with witches, excursions into deep, dark woods, and a few very expressive bears, and concerns itself with a rebellious daughter of royalty. In short, it feels like a classic Disney picture. Normally, that'd be a compliment. In Pixar's case, it represents a regression.
To be fair, the young lass at the film's center is a piece of work. Her name is Princess Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald). She has eyes the color of the Tahitian ocean and a tangle of bright red curls erupting out of her head like magma from a porcelain volcano. (Her flaming locks are the most wondrous bit of animation in the film, so intricately detailed they're practically a world unto themselves.) Handy with a bow and arrow, she's like Katniss Everdeen for the Dora the Explorer crowd. As her carefree childhood gives way to teenage angst, she clashes with her loving but sternly traditional mother, Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson). Literally hemmed in by tradition, Merida is stuffed into an ill-fitting dress for a betrothal ceremony and made to face a lineup of suitors from neighboring clans: a long-haired, beschnozzed beanpole, animated as Adrien Brody playing William Wallace; an oafish blockhead who speaks in an indecipherable gargle of consonants; a puny, slack-jawed mouth-breather. Considering the options, she'd just as soon wed herself. And that's precisely what she conspires to do, duping the dolts into competing in an archery contest for her hand, then clandestinely entering herself and winning easily. Naturally, her mother isn't pleased.
To the credit of the screenwriters—co-directors Mark Andrews, Brenda Chapman and Steve Purcell, and Irene Mecchi—the story does not go on to introduce another bland Prince Charming archetype. Instead, it draws on Scottish folklore to explore maternal bonds and the effects of unyielding pride on mother-daughter relationships. But in comparison to the movies of Pixar's past, Brave feels stultifying simple. It still looks great, the scenery coming alive with richly landscaped hills, jagged peaks and crystalline waterfalls, but rarely has it ever been said of a Pixar film that the visuals are the most compelling part. It's true here. Emotionally, the film is upstaged by the short that precedes it, a lovely little thing called La Luna, about three generations of celestial custodians. As with most Pixar viewing experiences, you'll probably well up with tears. Only this time, it'll happen before the feature presentation even starts.
SEE IT: Brave is rated PG. It opens Friday at Lloyd Center, 99 West Drive-In, Cedar Hills, Eastport, Cornelius, Oak Grove, Pioneer Place, Evergreen Parkway, Hilltop, Lloyd Mall, Movies On TV, Sherwood, Tigard, Wilsonville, Sandy.