Disney princesses have a rough time with the women who run their lives. The female authority figure is usually a stepmother — in Disney animated features, the inevitable phrase would be “wicked stepmother” — who offers Snow White a poisoned apple, forces scullery work on Cinderella and, in Tangled, locks Rapunzel in a high tower for her entire childhood and most of her adolescence. The millions of actual stepmoms, among all the postnuclear families in the world, must think of these portrayals as libel. They should bring a class-action suit against the Walt Disney Company and picket its Burbank headquarters.
Up in the San Francisco suburb of Emeryville, where the Pixar kids play, movie mothers are nearly invisible. Virtually every one of Pixar’s CGI masterpieces (or, in the case of Cars and its sequel, Mater-pieces) is a buddy film limning the virtues of camaraderie. The studio might be a boys’ treehouse with a warning sign nailed to the front: NO MOMS ALLOWED.
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And, until now, no women directors. Before Brave, Pixar’s old-boy network had never designed a feature film around a female character, never put a woman in charge of it. As director, Pixar boss John Lasseter brought in Brenda Chapman, who had co-directed DreamWorks’ The Prince of Egypt in 1998 and who had a scenario based on her complex relationship with her own young daughter. Presto: Gender equality in the world’s premier animation house!
Except that Chapman was removed halfway through in favor of Mark Andrews, a Pixar veteran who served as co-writer and second unit director of John Carter. There were whispers that Chapman had got lost in the thickets of story, that the movie needed a hand — a man’s hand — to make it more of an action film, less a Mother’s Day card.
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The story — of a rebellious princess who battles an imperious queen and is beset by magic spells — is a twist for Pixar but as familiar to its parent company Disney as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Beauty and the Beast and The Princess and the Frog. One big difference: the woman who makes the heroine’s life miserable is not her stepmother but her own mom.
In ancient Scotland, Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald) is a lass as wild as her curly red mane. An expert in archery, like The Hunger Games’ Katniss, Merida feels closer to the bear-hunting machismo of her father, King Fergus (Billy Connolly), than to the civilizing demands of her mother Elinor (Emma Thompson). She snorts when she laughs, filches food from the pantry, just because she can, and runs free through the bear-infested woods. She’s both a tomboy and a sullen teen who responds to her mother’s every request by flopping on the nearest piece of furniture and whining, in two harsh syllables, “Mah-ahm!”
When the Queen imports three unsuitable suitors as prospective husbands, Merida causes havoc in the realm by declaring she’ll marry no one but herself. “I hope you die!” she screams at the woman who gave her life. In a rage, Merida visits a witch (Julie Walters), hoping for a magic spell that will change her mother. It does. Reviewers’ etiquette requires that we speak no more of it. If you want to know what happens in the movie’s Act Two, buy a subscription to TIME and read the review in last week’s issue.
(READ: Corliss’ full review of Brave by subscribing to TIME)
Replacing the person in charge is a Pixar tradition (it happened on Toy Story 2, Ratatouille, WALL•E and Cars 2), but the creative tension between two directors, a man and a woman, is evident from the tug of tones in Brave’s telling: part hearty, part heartfelt. The movie spends its first half in brawny highlands humor — fighting, carousing, spit takes, guy stuff — and a lot of Scots stereotyping, as if they were Australians or something. Then it abruptly left-turns into the primal bonding of mother and daughter.
(READ: Graeme McMillan on Pixar’s problems with stereotypes)
However Manichaean the process of creating the movie, Brave is visually organic. It jettisons the sleek old Pixar shapes of toys, cars and robots — all relatively easy to animate — for images of untamed nature, from Merida’s hair to the copses and crags of imaginary Scotland. Visually the most ravishing and complex Pixar movie, Brave evokes memories of Walt Disney’s early experiments with the multiplane camera, but with the more persuasive intricacies available to CGI artists.
The movie takes nearly an hour to reach its central themes: that someone we think is a beast may love us to pieces, that teen rebellion can have dreadful consequences and that, sometimes, even a Scots mother can have a Brave heart. By the climax, at which all right-thinking viewers will have dissolved in a puddle of warm appreciation, the new Pixar film has earned two cheers and a big bear hug. Now maybe some animation studio will make a really radical movie: one with a nice, caring stepmother.