Yesterday, I finally (finally) saw Pixar’s Brave.
I both loved it and felt a little underwhelmed. It was a moving film with fantastic characters, enchanting animation and plenty of fun.
It also felt, at times, a little hollow.
Merida is a wonderful protagonist. Bold, fearless, skilled, with a sense of humor and a burning desire to be in charge of her fate… and also kind of bratty. She’s short-tempered and impatient, and she doesn’t think through the consequences of her actions. She is, in short, a very real, very flawed, very compelling female character.
But I don’t think she’s in contrast to the typical modern “Disney Princess,” or somehow more feminist than them in her characterization. Bold, individual, with the sense that they don’t fit in and the desire to break convention to find adventure or a greater fate or a place they belong… that’s basically been the Disney Princess MO since Ariel sang Part of Your World. And despite the fact that the plot is sparked by Merida’s refusal to accept an arranged marriage, she is not “anti-romance.” She’s perfectly happy to get married someday. She just wants to fall in love first.
The unique element, and my favorite part, of Brave is the realistic, painful, tensioned and moving relationship between Merida and her mother Eleanor. Princesses don’t have mothers. That’s been a fact of fairytales and Disney movies since Snow White first appeared. Their mothers are dead (or never met, as in Tangled), and the characters are threatened by stepmothers or other female parenting surrogates. But Brave puts the mother-daughter relationship front and center, complete with angry words, lack of understanding, and an inability to listen to or accept the other’s perspective. Neither character is perfect, neither character is right, and they love each other and struggle against each other in equal measure. It was amazing to see a movie where a mother/daughter relationship, with all its pain and messiness, was front and center. Where they were the main two characters, where it drove the plot, and where it inspired many tears as the movie came to a close.
Merida and Eleanor both represent different kinds of femininity — Eleanor’s dignified, commanding, gentle, loving queenship and Merida’s wild, adventurous, messy, rebellious spirit — and both are presented as valid ways to be. In fact, just as Eleanor needs to embrace Merida’s shooting and adventuring skills to survive, Merida needs to embrace Eleanor’s diplomatic skills to prevent war from breaking out. No “most girls are stupid” message here.
My only complaint with Brave, and it was sadly a big one, was that these characters weren’t given anything else to do while their relationship developed. The “my mother is a bear, how do I turn her back?” plotline wasn’t strong enough to carry the movie, and the evil bear with the strength of 10 men felt a little like an afterthought to create drama in the finale. Like any movie about a relationship — whether a romantic one, or the commonly seen father/son tale — it needed something else, some other plotline or goal, to make it feel full and completely engaging. I was absolutely enchanted, completely in love, with the first fifteen minutes. My heart was in my throat for the final half an hour. I wanted to cheer at the movie’s final images. But the stuff in the middle… it was funny, moving, realistic, and gorgeously animated, but it felt a little too still. Like it was lacking some key action for the characters to develop around.
So Pixar, Disney, all filmmakes, please make more movies that feature realistic mother/daughter relationships. Just don’t forget to include the flying house, talking whales, or other element of wild adventure too.