By Matt Connolly
Dirs. Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman, U.S., Walt Disney/Pixar
Merida, the free-spirited young princess at the center of Brave, desires simple things. She wants to shoot at well-worn wooden targets with her bow and arrow as she rushes through the lush forests that surround her family’s Scottish kingdom. Happiness is little more (or less) than climbing craggy cliffs and gazing out at the splendor of a country sunset. In short, she longs for the joys of play and the wonders of nature. Luxuriating in these athletically inflected pleasures places Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald) outside the realm of standard gender expectations—which is encouraged by Merida’s gregarious giant of a father, Fergus (Bill Connolly), and initially tolerated by her tradition-minded mother, Elinor (Emma Thompson). As Merida grows older, however, Elinor tightens the parental reins and forces Merida to begin preparing herself for a life of womanly duties. The conflict between Elinor’s devotion to custom and Merida’s resistance to it comes to a head when Elinor insists upon Merida’s betrothal to one of the first-born sons of the local clan leaders. Merida doesn’t exactly have a reason why she doesn’t want to get married, no experience or duty that matrimony will preclude her from fulfilling. Rather, her protest rests upon a fundamental belief in her own self-determination, even if that results in just a few more years of communing with nature and enjoying her adolescence before adulthood eclipses youth. It’s a stance at once modest and subversive, especially when stacked up against Disney’s other “headstrong” princesses like Jasmine or Pocahontas, many of whom fight patriarchal authority for the right to…be with a dude.
Reading the lukewarm reactions of many critics to Brave, I cannot help but see curious parallels between Merida’s plight and that of the film she anchors. While Merida attempts to throw off the yoke of the conservative demands placed upon her life to enjoy the simple satisfactions of sport and self-discovery, Brave itself is a film of medium-sized delights and quietly empowering politics that has been proactively burdened with two sets of stipulations by cultural commentators. Its status as the first Pixar film to center upon a female heroine ensures an especially careful look at how Brave handles the complicated representational issues of portraying a young woman in a manner at once progressive, complex, and relatable to the mass audience that the company inevitably targets for its wildly successful, big-budget features.
This is an eminently reasonable and necessary intervention. Intertwined within it, however, lies another strand of critical expectations focusing on Pixar’s remarkable pedigree—one that until recently had been without blemish. The studio’s films have been well received by both reviewers and audience members almost without fail since Toy Story (1995), their inaugural feature. Between 2007 and 2010—with the releases of the near universally adored Ratatouille (2007), Wall-E (2008), Up (2009), and Toy Story 3 (2010)—Pixar’s cultural stock rose from a purveyor of high-quality animation to the last bastion of creatively fertile ground in a Hollywood studio landscape gone fallow. While others focus-grouped their blockbusters into submission, Pixar let auteurs like Brad Bird, Andrew Stanton, and Andrew Docter run free, producing idiosyncratic tales about lovelorn robots, culinarily inclined rodents, and widowed geezers chasing faded dreams aboard an old house held aloft by hundreds of multi-colored balloons. That all of these gambles became cash cows only further solidified Pixar’s knack for risk-taking and tapping into a demand for popular filmmaking that evinced a respect for its audience. This hot streak came to a screeching halt last year. Cars 2 (2011) not only received eye-rolls from critics, but seemed to signal a shift in Pixar’s internal philosophy. The studio had done sequels before, but never one that seemed so tailor-made for tie-ins, and that didn’t push forward a sustained creative vision (as seen in the three Toy Story films, each a more-poignant meditation on how time changes our relationships with childhood and its beloved totems).
Brave has the unenviable task, then, of forging new representational territory while simultaneously restoring Pixar’s tarnished reputation. Indeed, many critics’ issues with the film rest squarely at the intersection of these twin demands. Both the appearance of a Pixar heroine and the narrative trajectory in which she operates are met with general—if not particularly enthusiastic—approval. In many reviewers’ estimations, however, it’s Merida’s unfortunate luck to show up at a moment when Pixar itself seems less equipped to provide her with a suitably innovative and exciting vehicle. The Associated Press’ Christy Lemire summarizes this position succinctly when she writes that, “Pixar is long overdue for a feature with a strong female character at its center. Now that she's arrived, it's clear that she deserves better.”
I’m not entirely unsympathetic to these critiques. Brave has its share of problems, not least of which are an overreliance on the sort of yes-dear sitcom stereotyping that characterizes many of the interactions between the stern Elinor and boisterous Fergus. That said, I think it’s worth considering Brave’s particular concerns and cinematic predilections on their own terms. It is indeed enticing to imagine an idealized version of the Pixar film that finally embraces a female protagonist, one that effortlessly merges feminist triumph and aesthetic spark. If Brave doesn’t quite exceed that (perhaps unattainable) hurdle, it offers surprising pleasures.
The film’s comfort with discarding standard narrative ideas of “empowered” women becomes obvious early on. After Elinor insists upon presenting her daughter with her three potential suitors, each more ridiculous than the last, Merida turns the tables when she insists that an archery competition be the challenge by which the young men vie for her hand. It gives little away to reveal that Merida bests all three of them in the contest, publically asserting her independence and humiliating her mother in the process. Such a charged display of gender parity would seemingly come at the end of a film like Brave, underscoring the heroine’s comfort within the masculine realm and converting skeptical authority figures through her skill and pluck. (It would also probably stoke the heart of the inevitable male suitor that so prominently occupies even the most female-centric of animated stories.) Brave places such a scenario well within its first act, cavalierly dismissing Merida’s besting of male competitors as its primary narrative thrust. Rather, it’s the rift that such a display creates between Merida and Elinor that forms the heart of Brave, shifting the emphasis from youthful gender defiance to the complex intersections of affection and resentment that form the heart of their mother-daughter bond.
Brave illuminates Merida and Elinor’s slow reconciliation in a manner at once splendidly fanciful and sneakily affecting. Furious over her mother’s intransigence, Merida flees into the woods, where a series of blue sprites lead her to the house of a witch (Julie Waters) who moonlights as a woodworker. Merida begs her to magically change Elinor’s views. The witch responds by whipping up a small cake that she promises will solve Merida’s dilemma. Merida returns home and gives her mother the treat as a would-be peace offering. One bite, however, and Elinor begins to swoon. Within a few minutes, she has mysteriously morphed into a large bear. (Merida’s mischievous little brothers go through a similar change when they gobble up the remainder of the treat.) This creates some obvious practical issues for both mother and daughter, not least of which being the deep animus that Fergus has towards bears ever since a particularly nasty one chomped off half of his leg years earlier. The fractious pair returns to the woods in search of the witch and the spell’s reversal. For the elegant Elinor, who retains her genteel sensibilities post-transformation, navigating her ungainly new body becomes a series of tragicomic humiliations: attempting to lumber on her hind legs with some kind of poise; scolding Merida through a series of growls and snorts that nevertheless convey her maternal disapproval. There are many sumptuous delights in Brave, from the intricately textured interiors of the family’s castle to the much-remarked-upon buoyancy of Merida’s mane of red locks. For my money, though, the animators’ ability to graft Elinor’s refined stature onto her cumbersome, hairy exterior truly reveals the suppleness Pixar’s artistry.
Such nuanced design proves crucial, as Brave uses Elinor’s transmutation for more than laughs. Forced to navigate the natural world via her clumsy ursine exterior, Elinor looks to her daughter for guidance. The film’s most moving sequence finds Elinor eating her first meal of raw fish while wandering through the woods. She initially attempts to maintain some sense of ladylike propriety as she nibbles on her freshly caught dinner. Animal instincts soon get the better of her, and she enthusiastically signals to Merida to gather more. Soon, she joins Merida in the middle of the rushing water, gamely attempting to catch fish and triumphantly scooping one up in her jaws. More than simply joining in on Merida’s outdoorsy fun, Elinor finds herself physically blending in with an environment that she nevertheless has no idea how to operate in. It’s the elegant inverse of Merida’s archer-in-the-body-of-a-princess dilemma, one that Brave underlines without overstatement. By speaking the language of fairy-tale metaphor, this emphasis on the subtle calibrations that make up a parent’s acceptance of their child can be further inflected in rich, complicated ways, depending upon the viewer’s perspective. (Others have seen queer potential in Brave, to which I can only add that Elinor’s literal transformation into a socially feared outcast offers a potent metaphor for the empathetic journey parents take in coming to terms with gay children.)
I can’t say that Brave follows this complex thematic through line with complete fidelity. The film’s final act becomes a sustained action set piece that, while executed with Pixar’s trademark dexterity and visual wit, nevertheless offers more streamlined satisfactions somewhat out of keeping with what came earlier. Even here, though, the film doesn’t abandon its vision of how female selfhood can be reshaped within the fires of lived experience. Without revealing too much, it’s fair to say that Merida undergoes a shift in perspective not unlike her mother’s, taking up Elinor’s more traditionally feminine skill sets and altering them at a crucial moment of danger. In this way, Brave ultimately frames the mother-daughter bond as an ever-shifting negotiation of femininity, with both parties learning to honor the other’s ideas of womanhood while reshaping it to fit their own life. Given the conflicting and intense demands placed upon Brave’s shoulders, perhaps it’s not surprising that this would not please all constituencies. Writing on the film’s parental focus, Manohla Dargis sighs that, “while the mother-daughter clashes may make the story ‘relatable,’ they drain it of its mythopoetic potential, turning what could have been a cool postmodern fairy tale into another family melodrama.” For me, it’s that very quality of “relatability”—that willingness to carve out individuated contours in the face of outsized expectations— that make both Merida and the film she inhabits so beguiling and, in their own way, so radical.