"Brave" is a little braver than it threatens to be. It takes a while to find out, though.
It isn't quite brave enough to be a big and wonderful and moving Pixar cartoon with a message that sometimes the bravest thing in life isn't to be brave at all. That would necessitate a whole other movie studio, at the very least. We are, after all, talking about a product with the Disney brand. (Is there any irony greater than that of the creators of the most beloved animation in America being the most controlling and heartily disliked corporation in American show business?)
But "Brave" is not the simple-minded, antique, gender entitlement fable that it threatens to be at first, either – you know, the one about the beautiful, flamingly red-haired tomboy princess who constantly defies her mother the Queen, who is the soul of everything regal, serene, domestic and traditionally "feminine" in the entire Scottish kingdom.
Not that it isn't enormously entertaining, mind you, to see a feisty young lass who'd rather gallop her horse bareback through the woods, pile food on her plate a foot deep and shoot her bow and arrow better than any pathetic doofus boy in the entire kingdom.
Her dad, Fergus the king, is a lusty and outsized character, after all, who's given to eating a couple chickens at a single sitting, pinching the queen's bottom when no one is looking and, when they are looking, boring everyone to tears with the story of how a savage bear chomped off a chunk of his left leg.
From the minute he gave his daughter a bow for her birthday, though, she's been in semi-open rebellion against her mother's vision of her, especially her plan to plight her offspring's troth to one of the idiot sons of Scotland's ruling clans.
Since Dad is voiced by Billy Connolly, Mom by Emma Thompson and their daughter by Kelly McDonald, this is, to put it mildly, a spirited and vivid bunch and about as appealing as animated voices can be.
It's just that tomboys getting out of arranged betrothals to blithering male idiots is not exactly raging feminism in the 21st century. They could have made that film at MGM with Elizabeth Taylor or Debbie Reynolds in 1952.
No, it's what happens next that gets awfully interesting in "Brave" – when our heroine the princess meets up with a wonderfully daffy witch (who's also in the business of selling souvenir wood carvings) and asks her to cast a spell that will change Mom.
Since she's not very specific about how that should be done – and since witches in fairy tales are always looking for semantic weaknesses to exploit – her way of changing Mom, the Queen, is to turn her into a giant bear.
And THAT's when "Brave" starts being the brave animated feature you want it to be. It turns out the movie's didactic mission isn't merely to teach stuffy royals to respect individual rights ahead of ancient gender roles, it's also to teach prideful daughters how beautiful it is to have loving mothers and to teach lady-like mothers how to get in touch with their inner wild things.
That's where "Brave" misses a little bit of a trick – especially when you consider that Thompson is voicing the queen. When Queen Mom turns into the bear, that ends her ability to communicate with language, which makes for some delightful comedy but misses all the possibilities of a character with Thompson's voice articulating ferociously all the joys of suddenly turning into a forest creature who eats as much as she wants, whenever she wants and couldn't care less who might be looking.
It's an enormously creative fable, though, with a story was written by Brenda Chapman, whose "The Prince of Egypt" is thought to be the first major studio animated film ever directed by a woman. Which is to say that you wouldn't be surprised to find a fairy tale about a headstrong princess who turns her mother into a bear in the fairy tales of The Brothers Grimm or Charles Perreault.
Just imagine how brave it is to find it at the movies.
We expect triumphs from Pixar – always. We don't always expect them to be as ingenious as this one ultimately turns out to be.
Especially when it turns out to be not entirely sure what lesson it wants to teach after all.