Brave is a much richer and more important film than most people realize. Context as they say, is everything. And to understand why Brave matters, we have to look at it within the context of animated films up to this point.
Nearly every review I’ve read about Pixar’s newest film and Disney’s newest addition to the princess cannon has noted how standard the story is. Alyssa Rosenberg gives the most concise, level review of the film, accurately pointing out the total failure regarding the characterization of the witch (ugh, what a waste, could have been the next Ursula) and pointing out the importance of Merida as Pixar’s first heroine. In brief: I agree with the consensus that the film is spectacularly beautiful, has some hilarious moments, great characterization, flirtations with genuine darkness (all I’ll say: blank-bear eyes) and is a very solid, if standard film.
But here’s the thing: Brave is not just about a typical child/parent film. It’s about Pixar’s relationship to Disney’s entire princess lineage.
My partner, Sara, was frustrated that Pixar chose a princess to be their first heroine. Really, there was no other option.
Consider all the Disney princess films as a single corpus. What’s the story? In Golden Age Disney (Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty) you have princess beset by magical circumstance and a prince whom she is destined to love who must save her. In Modern Disney (Beauty & The Beast, The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Pocahontas, Mulan, Tangled, The Frog Princess) you have the rebellious, independent princess who falls in love with a prince who rescues her. In a sense, all these stories are about how the princess finds her prince despite, or because of, magic.
So now we come to Brave. The whole film echoes all the others (magic food; animal transformation; warrior princess; rebellion and costly spell; unwanted suitors; a kingdom in the balance) save for one thing – Brave does not end in Merida falling in love or being rescued. Merida is a princess who uses magic to avoid her prince and the movie ends with her neither betrothed or in love. Brave is about a Disney princess breaking the tradition of Disney princesses.
What is particularly impressive is the addition of a single character that is usually missing from nearly every Disney princess film – the Queen. Cinderella, Belle, Ariel, and Jasmine are all without their mothers. Brave is dominated by Elenore, the Queen of the four clans. Were this not Pixar and Disney and instead Brave had been, say a Dreamworks film, one could argue that this was just another coming of age story, like How to Train Your Dragon but about mother and daughter. But if you view it as representative of the entire genre and, in a sense, sharing the universe with all the prior princesses, something different emerges.
Brave is about Pixar and Disney learning to get along. Pixar says, alright, we’ll do a princess, but she’s going to be our kind of princess. As a result, Merida, as the Pixar character, is bucking not only her Scottish traditions but the entire half century of Disney princesses before her. Elenore, concomitantly, represents all the prior princesses and the tradition they followed. As with so many of the princesses, Elenore is the one exposed to the magic, who must be rescued, who is held in her prince/king’s arms at the end of the film. Merida experiences none of that. She doesn’t even flirt with any of the male suitors, though they all turn out to be decent chaps. Though she does fight off her warrior king father twice and manages to do better against the demon bear that took his leg than he did. Thus, the film ends not with Merida getting married, or even falling in love, but instead of her destiny remaining her own.
Ultimately, Brave was a pretty good movie that clearly shows the scars of the directorial in-fighting over the film’s content (I would love to know who directed the witch scene – I suspect not Chapman). The value of the film is to watch it in the context of, “Alright, so here’s another Disney princess. I know the drill. Rebel, magic, danger, prince rescue, happy ending. Except, wait, that’s not what’s happening.” A Disney princess who fights her own battles, fixes her own mistakes, and doesn’t need a prince? That’s something special.
The stage has been set for what might be the first Pixar film that actually deserves a sequel or two. Merida’s story is clearly going to only get more interesting from this point forward.