Disney must have been confounded by "Brave."
The company's marketing campaign for the latest computer-animated feature film from the geniuses at Pixar promises an adventure of you-go-girl empowerment intended to update the tradition of the so-called "Disney princess" for the Katniss Everdeen generation.
Instead, "Brave" -- true to its title adjective? -- is perhaps Pixar's oddest film, a fable that might as well have been titled "My Mother, the Bear."
The movie (in unnecessary 3-D, at most locations) is surprisingly mature in theme and at times even somewhat terrifying, but also underwhelming and preachy, if less self-consciously grandiose than most Pixar productions.
The trailers and posters for "Brave" focus almost exclusively on rebellious Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald), a teenage princess in an ancient Scottish kingdom and the first female protagonist to carry a Pixar project. Merida's vanguard status is appropriate: The story is by Brenda Chapman, who also co-directs, making her the first woman to helm a Pixar feature.
Is this distinction a testimony to Chapman's talent, or an indicator of the lack of women in animation? Chapman's only previous feature as a director was DreamWorks' kitschy 1998 Torah-inspired cartoon, "The Prince of Egypt." (The co-director of "Brave" is veteran animator Mark Andrews.)
An expert archer who rejects the "duties, responsibilities (and) expectations" of courtly life as well as the inadequate suitors for her royal hand, Merida is a proto-feminist free spirit and a soul sister to Disney's Mulan. She rides like wildfire through the forest, shooting arrows with Robin Hood accuracy, her tangled mass of violent red hair swirling in the wind like flame.
But "Brave" is not so much a celebration of a young woman's independence as a paean to the biological obligation and spiritual connection of mother-daughter love.
"You've always been there for me -- you've never given up on me," a chastened Merida tells her mother, Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson), in a climactic embrace. The onscreen weeping will find many echoes in the audience, especially among mothers and daughters.
On a darker note, this young-adult coming-of-age fairy tale is informed by Jungian psychology's notion of the Electra complex -- the rivalry between mother and daughter brought on by adolescence and sexual maturation.
"Brave" is reminiscent of "Brother Bear" (2003), one of Disney's last "traditional" animated features, in which an Inuit boy is turned into a bear. This time, it's Elinor who -- in response to one of pouting Merida's selfish wishes -- is magically transformed into a large bruin of the type that chomped off the leg of her husband, the warrior-king Fergus (Billy Connolly), a dedicated bear-hunter. Thus, Elinor's fuzzy new identity places her in grave danger from her own spouse even as it provides a context for Baloo-like slapstick and sight gags.
As Elinor becomes more bearish, she becomes dangerous and forgetful of her human identity. Brief scenes in which this Mama Bear seems ready to maim and even kill her daughter tap the same primal taboo that causes us to recoil when we read about real-life mothers who murder their children. These scenes seemed to scare young viewers at the preview screening I attended. It's likely that most of the kids in the audience never before had considered the idea of their parents failing to recognize them and genuinely trying to hurt them.
Despite the intensity of the premise, "Brave" feels somewhat constricted. It could be an episode of a fantasy TV series about a Scottish royal family: "This week, Merida must work fast to reverse a spell when Queen Elinor is turned into a bear." The animation is beautiful, of course, but this may be the first Pixar film that doesn't convince us the story couldn't be told just as well with live action. The directors even embrace some of the more tiresome tropes of live-action cinema, as when folk-pop music is used to score Merida's action montages.
Rated PG for scary action and rude humor.
(John Beifuss writes for The Commercial Appeal in Memphis. His movie blog is www.TheBloodshotEye.com. Email beifuss(at)commercialappeal.com.)