Kelly Macdonald and Kevin McKidd in Brave

3 stars

The heather on the hill and other scenic Scottish glories never looked lovelier than in the animated realm of "Brave," the gorgeous if awkwardly plotted new film from Pixar Animation Studios and the ruling clan of Disney.

Several firsts here for Pixar. Its 13th feature is the studio's first period assignment, set in pre-medieval times, a fairy tale grounded in the textures and enticements of a real place. It's also the first princess-themed project from Pixar, and the writers wisely make this headstrong royal an action heroine foremost. In the early scenes, young Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald) undergoes finishing-school preparations, however reluctantly, for an arranged marriage to one of three suitors representing clans of the kingdom ruled by Merida's father.

But Merida doesn't want to marry, or do much of anything her mother, the queen, seems to hold dear. "A bow, Fergus? She's a lady!" Queen Elinor gasps when her husband presents their daughter with the tools of archery. Running off on her own, her path guided by magical will-'o-the-wisps, Merida encounters a witch of dubious intent. The young girl's desire to change her mother's mind leads to a spell transforming the queen into a bear with vulnerably human qualities but an intimidating exterior.

In the prologue of "Brave," King Fergus loses a leg in a vicious bear attack, so we know bears are not trusted in this world. Appearances deceive, however, and the film, directed by Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman (the latter reportedly joining the former midproduction), whips up a lot of anxiety surrounding an adolescent's tangles with her mother; the desperate undoing of an unwanted curse; and, for comic relief, the devilish antics of Merida's little brothers.

Many aspects of "Brave" remind us, at a glance, why Pixar rules the American animation game. Production designer Steve Pilcher's landscapes are nearly photorealistic, but with a welcome touch of poetry; likewise, the director of photography for lighting, Danielle Feinberg, pours on the golden sunlight (and when it hits that red hair of Merida's -- wow!) but pays close attention to the shadows and the rough-hewn menace of Merida's quest. The vocal work is very good throughout, with Billy Connolly's King Fergus, Emma Thompson's Queen Elinor and Julie Walters' bulbous-eyed witch lending strong support for Macdonald's defiant Merida.

I wish the script were sharper. With the greatest Pixars, such as "Ratatouille" and "Wall-E," the audience has very little idea of where things are headed, and the results aren't simply unpredictable; narratively, tonally, thematically, they're brave. Ironically, "Brave" is less so, even though the violence (particularly bear-on-bear violence) gets pretty rough. The raucous slapstick with the warring clansmen grows wearisome; after the transformation of the queen, there's little pleasure in watching Mum-Bear in a constant, awkward panic.

In its rather conventional human character designs, much of "Brave" looks more like a DreamWorks picture than I'd have expected from Pixar, though in recent years DreamWorks has given us "How to Train Your Dragon" (speaking of Scottish adventures) and "Kung Fu Panda," violent but clever and good-looking comedies about young boys on quests for self-fulfillment. "Brave" offers sweep, a few songs about touching the sky and following your dream and at heart a story of a daughter and a mother learning to cut through society's expectations. At this point in Pixar's history, the studio contends with nearly impossible expectations itself. This is what happens when you turn out some bona fide masterworks. "Brave" isn't that; it's simply a bona fide eyeful.

MPAA rating: PG (for some scary action and rude humor).

Running time: 1:40.

Voice Cast: Kelly Macdonald (Merida); Kevin McKidd (MacGuffin); Robbie Coltrane (Lord Dingwall); Billy Connolly (King Fergus); Emma Thompson (Queen Elinor).

Credits: Directed by Brenda Chapman, Mark Andrews and Steve Purcell; written by Irene Mecchi, Andrews and Purcell, produced by Katherine Sarafian. A Disney Pixar release.

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Brave Movie Review - Kelly Macdonald and Kevin McKidd