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Brave is about a princess who doesn't want to be one. Merida is the first in line to the throne of her father's Scottish kingdom. Billy Connolly voices the boisterous King Fergus. Emma Thompson plays Queen Elinor, constantly needling Merida with a list of what a princess doesn't do. But Merida is about as easy to tame as her wild bramble of red hair. She can ride and shoot arrows better than the boys, which is awkward since she's now supposed to unite the feuding clans by picking her prince.

The film marks an interesting turning point for Pixar. Brave is their first fairy tale and one with a strong female lead. In many ways Brave is a movie only Pixar could make. It's the product of years of that particular type of animator's obsession. But it's also a sign of just how human the process is and how things go wrong.

 Merida is a wild-child heroine who outshoots the boys. (Disney/Pixar/Associated Press)

For those tired of Disney's army of willow-armed pink princesses of perfection, Merida is a blast of riot girl rebellion. With her round face and bright, inquisitive eyes, she challenges the typical silhouette. There's even a scene where Merida explodes out of her princess garb, Hulk style, popping her buttons to notch a bow and beat the boys at their own game.

What's more, inspired by the original director's own parenting fears, Brave's story focuses on a tenuous mother-daughter bond. Dashing princes; not required. So while the men get up to typical Scottish slapstick (haggis jokes, flashing of kilts) Merida wishes her mother was different. The convenient appearance of a wacky witch in the middle of a forest makes her whim a reality....




...and Queen Elinor becomes a bear. A giant, snorting hour-glass shaped bear. But somewhere beneath the fur and fat is still the prim, proper lady, complete with the regal crown perched on her fuzzy head. This -- not the watered-down J.R.R. Tolkien spooky forest lore -- is the real heart of Brave. They kept this nugget out of the trailers, but it rescues the movie. Brave transforms itself in buddy movie, as the two unlikely comrades must work together to break the spell or lose the Queen forever.

Heard of the expression "A Bull in a China Shop?" Well how about "A Bear in a Bedroom?" Half the pleasure of Brave comes from watching ursine Elinor jiggling and wiggling her way around the doors and hallways while trying to preserve her poise (not to mention various cabinets, bowls, beds etc).

While there's much to recommend in Brave, it does deserve a few cautions. Know your children and if they're under age nine, tread carefully. There is another another mean, scary bear in the deep dark woods and his appearance had both of my young brood begging to leave. It may be rated G, but it's much more mature than Cars, so be advised.

Brave is a movie that works, but you can see the seams between the pieces stitching it together. It began with one director and finished with another. It switched voice talent early on. The movie, much like Merida the heroine, took time to find itself.

These days cartoons are created by committee and this one feels like it more than most. Brave isn't one movie, it's almost three. The wacky highland antics of the Scottish clans. The dark mythic, almost Miyazaki quality of the forest and then finally a totally incongruent witch encounter. (There is an voice mail message gag. That's all you need to know.) Still Merida's spirit, given voice beautifully by the lilting Kelly Macdonald, is what carries us through. More than enough for any fairy tale fan or someone with a wild child of their own.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5

 Queen Elinor, King Fergus, Merida, and triplets Harris, Hubert and Hamish in a scene from Brave. (Disney/Pixar/Associated Press)

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