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Pixar’s Brave

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.

Rhiannon

Rhiannon Thomas is the author of A WICKED THING and KINGDOM OF ASHES. She lives in York, England.

3 thoughts on “Pixar’s Brave

  1. Yes, I am prowling through your blog because everything is wonderful. I didn’t realize just how big a deal that the center of this movie was on a mother/daughter relationship (in contrast with previous Disney movies) until you pointed it out. However, I didn’t find myself very happy with how that relationship was developed, so I didn’t even properly enjoy it….. I actually had a bigger aversion to Merida’s character and was consequently rather disappointed with how the whole movie turned out/ended. I wished that the dynamic between Merida and her mother was explored more thoroughly so that she could mature more. Up until the very end, she didn’t seem very sorry about cursing her mother. Her mother was given the chance to see the value of Merida’s tomboyish ways, but Merida didn’t seem to get the chance to see things from her mother’s point of view. This was kiiiinda explored when Merida had to intervene in the fighting between the clans over her refusal to choose any of her suitors. She had to use diplomacy with the gestured guidance of Bear!Eleanor, and she might have learned some values of what has been her mother’s role, but she wasn’t able to really be taught all about it because her mother’s voice was literally taken away. Through it all, she mainly just seemed to be upset over how the spell didn’t work the way she wanted to and didn’t seem to understand the consequences of her actions until the very last minute. Honestly, I was a little disturbed by her initial reaction to her mother turning into a bear. She mostly seemed annoyed about the effects of the curse and even found humor in her mother’s situation when Eleanor found herself in the most unladylike figure of a gigantic wild animal. It’s been awhile since I’ve watched it, but I don’t think Merida even sincerely apologized to her mother for either of her two huge screw-ups: for INTENDING to manipulate her mother’s mind/will and for ACTUALLY turning her into a bear, possibly permanently. This brattiness was the main reason her character turned me off. Actually, now that I think about it, she reminds me a lot of Jennifer Connelly’s character in Labyrinth. She messed with bigger, magical forces she didn’t understand because she wanted out of her responsibilities. She’s then forced to go through a quest to reverse the consequences of her actions, but through the quest, she wails about how the circumstances she’s forced into isn’t fair, ignoring the fact that she was responsible for the mess she’s caused for herself and her family member. Although the plot and resolution wasn’t perfect, Sarah was finally forced to come to terms with the consequences of her actions and made multiple decisions again and again to right her wrongs and save her little brother even though she was offered bigger and brighter things (becoming queen?) or even an easy way out – to simply give up on the quest, go home, and everyone will forget she even had a little brother. Merida’s resolution didn’t play out satisfactorily given the brattiness, thoughtlessness, and even callousness she exhibited throughout the movie. I thought that that kind of conflict needed a better resolution than a last-minute, Beauty and the Beast-esque moment of realization and remorse. The ending left me doubting Merida’s sincerity in accepting her role and responsibilities. I also just couldn’t find myself liking her that much given the lack of real communication between her and her mother. This movie just really bummed me out when I had such high expectations for it…. :/

  2. I disagree with your analysis of Brave’s mother daughter relationship.

    I think the Bear thing was actually the most compelling part of it because you can see Merida increasingly desperate, through Eleanor’s savage flashes, realising just *who* will she lose due to her own lack of foresight. And you can see her mother’s frustruation (especially in the river part) because she lacks the natural instincts to survive and how she’s ever-aware of her loss of humanity.

    If you still doubt this portrayal, pay a little more attention to Eleanor-bear and her facial expressions and body language.

    True, it wasn’t perfectly executed but to say it wasn’t compelling it’s a fallacy.

    Also, the whole point of Mor’du’s story was that he was Merida’s mirror: a man, who wanted to change his own destiny out of selfishness, lost his most important thing (his entire family) and ended up a hollow shell of himself because he realised too late the consequences of his action vs a girl, who wanted to change his own destiny, lost her most important thing (her mother) and nearly ends up a hollow shell of herself (Eleanor holds family&kingdom together), and nearly too late manages to reverse the consequences of her actions.

    It’s an interesting contrast to say the least.

    Besides, I don’t think it’s problematic that she’s not anti-romance (not exactly what you said, but, er, you “get” me). She’s been raised up that way. It’s medieval Scotland, it’s perfectly realsitic. The fact that Merida *believes* she should have a choice instead of being his father’s pawn like any good little princess is in and of itself revolutionary.

    PD: I do realsie this post was months ago. Having a very mother-daughter relationship with my mother spurred me to protest. Maybe it’s easier for me to see the subtext because it’s so similar to mine? (except the part where they find common ground. My mother and me simply exist and love each other.)

    1. I agree with all the points you’ve made, and I think the contrast with Merida and Mor’du is really interesting, in theory. I just didn’t feel that the film executed it in quite the right way, at least for my tastes. I wanted to love it, but the movie felt like it was missing something to me. However, I have friends who felt the same way you do, so obviously it’s a personal preference thing.

      I also agree that it’s not problematic that she’s not anti-romance. I found all the reactions to the movie, praising it as the first one with a “strong” Disney princess, really problematic, precisely because they seemed to suggest that any romantic plotline or interest at all made a female character weak and less interesting. To me, that’s not a feminist statement… it’s taking the idea of independence (and, as you said, the right to make your own choice) to a twisted extreme, where choosing love or a relationship is automatically bad.

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