Barring its short films, Brave may be Pixar’s smallest feature to date. Certainly in scope, it tells a much more concise tale than an ocean-spanning odyssey or a superheroic fight across islands and bustling metropolises, insect insurrection or, yes, even globetrotting cars. Brave limits its setting to a small Scottish kingdom and a castle full of Scotch.
Merida (Kelly MacDonald) is a rather contemporary-minded princess who takes after her boisterous King and father (Billy Connolly having himself a grand old time), much to the dismay of her mother, Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson). After a lifetime of being groomed to be a lady, Merida rebels against tradition. This culminates in an angry escape from the castle on the night of her betrothal, to the house of a witch (Julie Walters) who promises to change the girl’s fate. (Though the witch prefers woodcarving. Fewer dissatisfied customers.)
How a movie is marketed often reflects how a studio feels about it. The trailers for Brave heavily emphasized Merida’s bold attitude and the epic Scottish highlands. There was little mention of the film’s plot. A lot of stirring music and platitudes about changing fate narrated the imagery, a girl on a horse, archery, and a big scary bear. The big scary bear enters into the film, somewhat, but the real story concerns a different bear.
The witch, promising to change Queen Elinor’s mind, gives Merida a magic pie. The pie turns the Queen into a bear, and thus Brave is largely about finding a way to change her back into a human being. It’s not a particularly exciting plot. The witch leaves a message to Merida that the only way to unmagic her mother is to mend the bond that was broken by pride. This is familiar Disney fare, so clearly this means apologizing to Elinor, learning a lesson, and becoming a woman. But Merida doesn’t know she’s in a Disney film, so she takes this to mean mending a tapestry that she cut while throwing a temper tantrum.
There are two ways to judge Brave: As an animated standalone feature, and as a Pixar film. I am a great fan of Pixar’s canon, so it is difficult for me not to do the latter. It is a sweet family film. There are no poor performances and there are sight gags and slapstick aplenty. Elinor as a bear gives the animators ample opportunity for comedy. Unfortunately, and intriguingly, the story’s weakness lies in its contemporary tone.
The first half of Brave introduces us to Queen Elinor, a woman who is never portrayed as buttoned down or prim, frigid, unyielding or static. Elinor is a three-dimensional woman living in a paternal society. She, her daughter, and the servingwoman Maudie are the only real women present on the screen. In every scene between them, Elinor does her best to prepare her daughter for her role in this society.
The Queen wields more power than Merida knows. King Fergus is a big man, a jolly old monarch that is beloved by his men for his rough ways. It is his personality that unites the four clans. It cannot be his prowess in battle, for we see him lose every battle he wages. His foot is eaten by a bear, his children outsmart him, and he is a woeful public speaker. The “Yes, dear” stereotype gets so many laughs in fiction because it exaggerates a common marital model; in the case of Fergus and Elinor, he well knows that she is smarter, more practical, and more adept at ruling.
Elinor’s disappointment in Merida comes not from the girl’s lack of grace but her inability to view the kingdom from her mother’s perspective. She wants her daughter to have “everything [we] didn’t have” when she was her age; and prior to the union of the four clans they must have had warfare and hardship. Elinor was not born a princess, unlike Merida. Her husband was made King. And this means that at some point Elinor gave up part of her dreams to become his Queen.
The era depicted in Brave was not known for its feminism. Merida’s brashness may reflect a contemporary teenage girl, but her refutation of tradition would endanger an entire kingdom, something Elinor, and the film, comes dangerously close to articulating. But by that point the Queen no longer has a speaking role.
If Brave was instead about a teenage girl sacrificing her life of fun riding her big horse through the forest unaccompanied, shooting arrows perfectly into bullseyes every time, for a life of servitude to a man she does not love, it would hardly be a children’s film – even labeled subversive for its atavistic values. To preserve her father’s kingdom, what her parents have striven for, she would have to sacrifice her freedom to serve the greater good. That is a harsh analogy for leaving childhood. Brave takes the more appealing tack by having Merida tell her mother that, even though she’s a bear to put up with, she loves her and wouldn’t want her to change. Who Merida will marry, how she will survive in this paternal society, is not addressed. And that void in the narrative is felt.
The film is not about female roles, ultimately; it is about a woman who becomes a bear. If I write this with some dismay, it is because there is a hint of a more interesting story embedded in Brave. But that is not a story children hear.
Directed by Mark Andrews / Brenda Chapman
Walt Disney Pictures
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