Like myself, and our chief editor, many readers of our site may have found themselves attaching undue importance to Disney/Pixar’s Brave. While it’s needless to explain that we’re fans of Pixar for their general quality and content (we can politely forget about the Cars franchise), it meant something different, something special, to have a female-oriented (and female-sourced) vehicle as their next big feature. I do not believe we were alone in this. The little girl inside of me who was once Joan of Arc for Halloween (ask my mother about the grey Eileen Fisher sweater I stretched out because it ‘looked like chainmaile’), who once built a sword out of PVC pipe, foam, a dead tennis ball, and duct tape, and who devoured Tamora Pierce’s Lioness Quartet like a starving person, needed Brave to be so many things. That is a tremendous price to ask of any movie, especially a high-budget movie, and one from a studio that must hit so many parts of the ambiguous (and dubious) “family” demographic.
So, both the over-excited tiny girl knight inside of me, and the grumbling, jaded critic that is my adult guise, are pleased to inform you that Brave is very, very good.
As you may have gleaned by now, Brave tells the story of plucky Princess Merida, firstborn to a king of vague Olde Timey Scotland. She’s also a bow-and-sword wielding, comfortable-dress-wearing tomboy to boot, more enthralled with riding around the highlands on her trusty stallion, Angus, than practicing how to be a proper future Queen with her mother. Incensed at learning of plans to marry her off, an upset Merida seeks out a solution from a forest witch, a bid that has always worked so well for characters in her situation. What follows is magic, curses, mayhem, lots of arrows, and yes, a few giant bears.
The story dutifully hits its marks, sometimes more formulaically than one would hope. It’s clear that Disney/Pixar was determined to stick to a clear-cut fairy tale format, and were only comfortable with slight deviations. What Brave has is not a daring and original plot, per se, but an earnest sense of delight and joy in the telling of a tale. It concerns me less that a story might be standard if I am genuinely enjoying the journey. Brave begs the indulgence of the kid inside all of us, and does so without a shred of irony or cynicism. Here is a fable unhampered by the need to revise it into something darker, a lot to ask of a modern adult audience weaned on grit and grimness. Take it for what it is; a beautiful fairy tale with fairly unobtrusive contemporary touches.
Brave looks fantastic, in both senses of the word. Starting with the fake ‘helicopter’ shots of medieval Scotland at the film’s opening credits, it’s easy to tell we’re in good hands. Every detail of the backgrounds is textured with loving care, maintaining a tight stylization that never suffocates. The first look at concept art last year had made me skeptical, left wondering how a more realistic pass at facial features and materials would jive with the exaggerated proportions of the characters. Watching the models finally move, my fears were put to rest. The level of attention to each main figure is admirable, such as Queen Elinor’s subtle facial wrinkles, or the rough weave of cloth evident in close-ups. Merida’s iconic hair deserves special mention, being a bouncy mass of luminous, saturated yarn that practically needs its own render engine, and does not give a dirk about the laws of physics.
Hair like that needs to match its bearer, and Merida is a standout, memorable character. She’s strong, smart, and spunky, while obstinately remaining a teenager. Sometimes a petulant girl, sometimes a rebel defying her parents, she morphs into a mature young woman when the situation calls for her to take charge. It is notable that, in a plot bent on marrying her off for the sake of tradition, her prowess as a warrior is never once called into question. Not a single character ever second-guesses her physical abilities, or worries over risks taken specifically because she is female. Even when she announces that she’s scaled a massive cliff-face for fun, the reactions she receives are a mix of pride from her father, and a dismissive wave from a mother who wishes she would concentrate on her needlepoint.
I tend to avoid reading reviews until I get my own in the can. But I was surprised to hear from other friends in the media that Brave was getting mixed responses, and some harsh feedback. When I asked a fellow critic to clarify, he said that he found the negative responses on Brave to be less a notation of disappointment from viewers (as it had been on, say, Cars 2), and more of a brutal take-down. Why the ire, I wondered, from a normally forgiving audience that’s been overwhelmingly charmed by the studio in the past?
There are a lot of reasons this could be the case. Brave is both epic in landscape, and more intimate in number of locations, giving it a smaller feeling despite its sweeping vistas and many wide shots. The film’s centered around a family unit, but, unlike The Incredibles, one that isn’t equally involved in the action. Merida’s father, King Ferguson, is loving, but mostly there to produce laughs. The same is true of the occasionally useful, mostly comedic, slapstick antics of her triplet younger brothers. Could it be the repetitive, fairy-tale nature of the story, with its revisiting of landmarks, and rudimentary story structure? All of these are possible issues for audience members.
If I dared to posit a theory, I’d say that the hard detractions might be because Brave is about a princess. More than that, it is a about a princess and her mother, the queen. It is a movie that contains action, and magic, but one centered on the evolving relationship between two generations of women. Brave is loosely about family; it is really about mothers and daughters.
Brave deserves credit for not demonizing Queen Elinor. Instead, the film takes pains to show that both sides of the argument between her and Merida have some validity, just as both parties are blinded by the same stubbornness. Elinor is a well-rounded character that has hopes, a past, and dreams for the future. She speaks of being a young woman herself who was bound to marriage, and clearly feels a sense of duty, even when it’s superfluous. She’s not beyond reason, and is, surprise, surprise, won over fairly easily once things get rolling. In fact, the Queen’s steadfast insistence on Merida’s more ladylike studies is the one element out of sync here. No other characters seem to terribly mind Merida’s breaks with tradition. Their entire culture is presented as steeped in violence, song, and drinking. (One wonders what the Scottish viewers think.) What use did Elinor think Merida would have for embroidery in all this rollicking madness? Though it’s hinted at that war will break out if Merida doesn’t marry the son of one of the clan Lords, the film’s subsequent events make even that threat seem like an empty plot catalyst. It’s a piece that doesn’t fit, and one that could have been solved by having another speaking female part, or several, (besides the witch, who doesn’t hang around for long) just for contrast. But perhaps, with two lady leads, the story team already felt they were pushing things.
The attention given to, not the femininity, but the female gender as portrayed by the movie, is unavoidable in this case. Brave is not just a film with gendered characters, but a plot about the gender of its characters. It is, in its best moments, about complete, flawed women of different ages and mindsets, trying to meet each other in the middle. Neither is perfect, especially protagonist Merida, whose agency in the film is also the cause of all the havoc. Perhaps it is her flawed nature, her more realistic nature, so different from that of the typically poised and unchanging Disney archetypal princesses, that has lured the most negative criticism. I for one, am supremely glad that Merida doesn’t talk to songbirds, that she has a flaring temper, and that she has the capacity to realize when she’s messed up. That’s what equality really means; that female protagonists can make big mistakes, and seek redemption, just like their male counterparts.
The little sword-wielding girl I was would have been proud to dress as her for Halloween.
Zoe Chevat is a Contributing Editor for Animation World Network and VFXWorld, as well as a feminist pop culture commentator on various websites, including The Mary Sue and Anime News Network. She holds an MFA in Film and Animation from CalArts, where she was part of the Experimental Animation program. She lives and works in Los Angeles as both a writer and animator, and, as a relocated East Coaster, still finds the first part of this sentence to be unnerving.
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