March 13 2013 12:00 AM

Pixar's exciting, atmospheric 'Brave' salutes mothers and daughters


In the past 17 years, Pixar has given us wonderful stories about fathers and sons (“Finding Nemo”) and the power of the family unit (“The Incredibles”), not to mention the “Toy Story” trilogy, made up of three outstanding “buddy” comedies. Finally, the bond between mothers and daughters gets its due in “Brave,” a beguiling, often exciting fable that unfolds in pastoral ancient Scotland.

The movie doesn’t have the satiric punch of “WALL*E” or the inventiveness of “up” or “Monsters, Inc.,” but that doesn’t diminish its strengths. Merida, the feisty, fast-thinking heroine of “Brave,” is as strong and admirable as Disney’s Pocahontas and Mulan. Kids will adore her — and parents will breathe a sigh of relief that this princess has more on her mind than landing the perfect man or finding new ways to pamper herself.

Merida (vigorously voiced by Kelly Macdonald of “Trainspotting” and “No Country for Old Men”), whose firebrand personality is telegraphed by her wild curls of flaming red, dwells in a mist-cloaked world not too far removed from Camelot: There seems to be a touch of magic around every corner, whether it’s in the dense forests inhabited by sparkling, jellyfish-like will-o-the-wisps, or an extremely peculiar cabin that houses a daffy witch who masquerades as a woodworker. The adventure-seeking teenager is never happier than when she’s practicing her archery — she could give Robin Hood and Katniss Everdeen a few pointers — or scaling the formidable Fire Falls. This pleases Merida’s dad, the boisterous King Fergus (Billy Connolly), but does not sit nearly as well with Queen Elinor (a deliciously prim and forceful Emma Thompson), who would prefer to see her rough-and-tumble daughter turn her focus to beaus instead of bows and arrows: The only archer Elinor has any use for is Cupid.

Merida’s refusal to accept the responsibilities that go along with her royal station leads to a domestic war between the women. It also sends Merida down a path similar to the one taken by “Little Mermaid” Ariel (note to angst-ridden young girls out there: consulting a sketchy sorceress inevitably makes a bad situation worse). The screwy spellcaster (Julie Walters) triggers a crisis that both ruins and reinvents the parent/child relationship, as Merida and Elinor are forced to set their grievances aside and work together. Beneath the sometimes raucous comedy and thrills of “Brave” is the message that we honor our family not by kowtowing to traditions, but by making maximum use of our gifts and learning to appreciate each other’s differences.

Admittedly, the moral is not always delivered with the greatest of subtlety. The male characters in “Brave,” particularly the ones vying for Merida’s favors, are mostly brain-dead buffoons, and even in 3D they remain stubbornly one-dimensional. The exceptions are Merida’s deliciously devilish trio of younger brothers, a band of mischief-makers who move like ninjas and leave chaos and calamity in their wake.

The strength of “Brave” comes from the enchantingly atmospheric backdrop (enhanced by Patrick Doyle’s alternately spirited and mysterious score) and the thoroughly credible tension and tenderness between Merida and Elinor. Although they’re operating in an environment of sheer fantasy, Macdonald and Thompson vibrantly bring these ladies to life.

As usual with a Pixar picture, the feature is preceded by a short, in this case the utterly winning "La Luna." It's the story of a little boy who assists in a decidedly offbeat sort of janitorial work, and it will leave you completely dazzled.