You'd think being a princess would be a little easier by this point.
But then your most recent trip outside the castle gates only drums up about a hundred million dollars and everyone is expecting Avatar-level takes, or at least a solid 300, and that's when they change the game on you. Thanks to the alleged box-office poison that is overt female-ness, they have to go disguise the next princess movie as a non-princess movie to trick people into seeing it. Mere mega-success is no longer an option. They now require ass-kicking-mega-success, plus merchandising that somehow turns the princess into a car, or else they can never make any more movies about princesses. Also, princesses are the only women they know how to create. Yes, yes, there was Lilo, but she ran around hitting people, which is just not very princess-y. Anyway, they don't have time to think about this any harder than they already do. Sorry.
But now, in this corner, weighing an unknown quantity of scrappy pounds, is Disney-Pixar refusenik royalty Merida (Kelly Macdonald), a young woman whose uncontrollably curly red hair is almost its own character and whose archery skills make her something of a cartoon Katniss. Even better, she's not getting married today -- or ever, probably -- to the first-born son of a kindred clan in her medieval Scottish world, even if it means she could prevent the men from starting a giant war. They'd find a reason to start one all the same.
In fact, Merida is so rambunctiously rebellious in the face of expectations placed upon her by royal tradition that she fights ferociously with her mother the queen (Emma Thompson) over corsets, weaponry, that hair and, most importantly, her future role in the kingdom. She also enters a win-the-princess's-hand-in-marriage archery competition just so she can crush the boys and claim herself for herself, then embraces the black magic of a witch who claims to have just the thing to make mom come around. And when was the last time a princess encountered a witch in a forest and anything good came of it?
The witch's curse leads to a transformation I won't talk about here, but it's one that provides the movie with most of its second-half comedy and all of its drama, even as it threatens to become an occasional obstacle, both to the title's promise of epic courage and to the action's momentum. And at the same time, it's refreshing enough just to see this kind of protagonist in situations that demand acknowledging the complications that arise when traditionally masculine and traditionally feminine approaches to conflict butt heads. She's not a girl wanting to be a boy, she just wants not to be told how to be a girl. Sometimes the movie is on board for this, sometimes less so.
Which means it's as messy in the narrative department as it is impeccably beautiful to look at and live in for two hours. And it still has everything the word "Pixar" has come to mean: intelligence, humor, beauty and a humane quality you only miss when you see other films that get so lost in cleverness and tech-y stunts that they forget to move you. So if it stumbles a little while trying to be an action movie with a mother/daughter love story at its center, if it tries a little too hard to loosen the corset of what stories can be told and to whom, then so be it. A stumble in the right direction will still get you to your destination.