Brave, Princess Merida

"Brave" (opening Friday) is far from the disappointment expressed in some early reviews. It's not only the much ballyhooed breakthrough as Pixar's first female-centric movie but also the most lush-looking work yet from the animation powerhouse. It's a powerful mother-daughter crucible set in medieval Scotland but with a modern sensibility and marks a break from the usual Pixar buddy formula.

Indeed, watching two control freaks, Queen Elinor (voiced by Emma Thompson) and Princess Merida (voiced by Kelly MacDonald), butt heads is rare for animation. It makes no difference that they're royalty -- it merely raises the stakes. "Brave" is about a free-spirited teenager who rejects her mother's old world values-- and the magical turn of events that forces them to "mend the bond torn by pride." Think Disney's "Freaky Friday" only more Grimm. Or a lightweight "Into the Woods," which Rob Marshall is adapting at Disney.

But take it from Brenda Chapman, who was inspired by the friction with her own willful daughter to write and direct "Brave," only to be replaced during the last leg of the marathon after butting heads with the Pixar brain trust: "It was absolutely my intention to subvert the princess role," she posted in the comments about the Women and Hollywood article, "Is Princess Culture Redeemable?" "There is no prince in my movie. And my princess is a true teenager in that her real 'problem' (or so she thinks) is her own mother. A working mom and her daughter love story/action-adventure/fairytale. I wanted to turn the pink princesses on their heads -- no pink and prince -- and I'm not talkin' the songbirds."

From what I gather, Chapman's plot became too complicated: she couldn't see the forest through the trees. "The mother/daughter relationship works, but there were a lot of holes," suggests Mark Andrews, who replaced Chapman as director 18 months ago."We had to get rid of all the stuff that didn't work or cluttered the main themes…a lot of [ideas] that we were spinning to bring in these magical, mythical elements. You find out where the missing pieces are and fill in the blanks and solve the problems. It's pain in the ass work."

Maybe so, but even Chapman conceded last year in Pixar Portal that after six-and-a-half years she was still struggling with simplification: "We were finally able to hone it down to the simple bare bones of it to see what we really needed to go forward. We weeded out some characters and weeded out some complications to the plot…. I related to the mother character very much. I was always trying to pull on the truths of a relationship and not rely just on the stereotypes. I would pull things directly from my day sometimes. I'd come in and say, 'You won't believe what happened to me this morning!' and sometimes it would fit really great."