Now in its 17th year of box office activity, Pixar may have entered into chronological adolescence, but the studio is far from becoming a brazen teenager who’s unaware of the past. With Brave, the people that brought us the Toy Story trilogy–arguably the greatest film trilogy originally conceived as a story for the screen–have given us a movie that, at first glance, runs the risk of being confused with the work of a more simple-minded studio. Superficially, at least: the protagonist Merida is an impetuous red-haired princess who feels shackled by tradition and tribal expectation. It’s a set up which, in less capable hands, could result in yet another recycling of the Dreamworks’ “be true to yourself” mantra or Disney’s own set of princess-genre bromides. Fortunately, Brave is a much better film than any of the cookie-cutter examples with which it might be confused.
This is not to say story doesn’t contain any of the trappings of the rote princess story. At the opening of the film, for instance, we find young princess Merida playing hide and seek with her mother Elinor. Elinor’s husband Fergus has given Merida a bow and arrow, a gift that Elinor does not believe is appropriate for a clan princess. Fergus notes that his daughter clearly loves the gift and that anyone and everyone should be able to defend themselves. When a killer bear attacks the village, his point is unintentionally proven.
After the title sequence, we flash forward several years, and Merida has grown into a young woman who bristles at the micromanaging concerns of her mother. Indeed, as has been noted elsewhere, the mother-daughter relationship lies at the heart of this film.
Left to her own devices, Merida would do as her father later jokes, AKA “stay single and ride on a horse at dawn, firing arrows while her hair blows wild in the wind.” Merida is much less interested in royal decorum than she is in scaling craggy cliffs and drinking from secret waterfalls, and she lacks neither the physical prowess or warrior’s confidence to do so. She clearly takes more after her father than her mother. Which doesn’t stop Elinor from expecting her to be every bit as much the political and diplomatic power-broker in the kingdom that she herself is. As a number of reviewers have noted, Fergus may formally be called king but the real power behind the throne sits with Elinor.
We listen as Elinor tells her daughter legends about the past, in particular the legend of how the “four clans” descended from four sons of a single king. The brothers lived harmoniously together until the fateful day when one of them began to crave more for himself. The brother in question seeks out a witch to give him the strength of ten men, and soon he brings discord and division to the once peaceful kingdom, which remains to the present day.
We then find out that, to preserve unity among the four clans, Merida must be married off to the firstborn of one of the other families. The clans’ names are Dingwall, Macintosh and Macguffin–perhaps not the most subtle screenwriting but certainly good for a few laughs. We have been tipped off that the central conflict in the story will have nothing to do with the would-be suitors. The suitors are merely the Macguffin (in one case, the literal Macguffin) who have no significance to the plot except for driving action forward.
Soon the clan patriarchs arrive with their sons (and entourages), and the competition for Merida’s hand begins. A sullen Merida is non-plussed and chafes at being put in a tight and constricting dress by her mother. When her father announces that Merida, as princess, gets to choose what form the contest will take, she does not hesitate to blurt out in a loud voice, “Archery! Archery!”
As the suitors step forth to demonstrate their skill they receive overblown and obviously misleading introductions from their fathers. Not surprisingly, none of the boys turn out to be much of archer. In fact, Merida and her father take turns quietly mocking them from the royal stage as Elinor scolds both of them. Apparently Merida shares not only her father’s passion, physical prowess, and fearlessness, but his lack of tact as well.
When, through dumb luck, the third suitor aces the archery test, the joking stops, and Merida announces that she will be firing arrows for her own hand. Elinor is horrified at her daughter’s impudence. Of course, Merida easily bests her would-be suitors, turning defiantly to her mother to gloat. When a furious Elinor asks her husband for advice, Fergus suggests that she talk to him as she would to Merida. The conflict comes to a head and Merida declares that she would rather die than be like her mother, before slicing through the woven family tapestry.
Some reviewers have claimed that Fergus offers his wife bad advice in this scene. Of course, it depends on what Fergus’ perceived goal was. Was it Fergus’ intention to get Elinor and Merida to talk to each other in the way that they eventually did? Or were Fergus’ jokes meant as delicate ways of pointing out that his wife and daughter are tainted by a mutual presumption of guilt? Cards on the table, that’s what I think Fergus was aiming to do.
Fergus may lack Elinor’s political finesse and skill, but there is a point where his being honest to a fault gives him an advantage over against the heads of the other clans. Where the other fathers have clearly contrived feats and qualities for their sons they don’t have, it only takes Fergus a few days to conclude that none of the clan scions are worthy of his daughter’s hand! Yet if Elinor had gotten what she thought she wanted, Merida would have been consigned to a political marriage to a man who was neither worthy nor a good match for her. Elinor may well possess the real power, but it apparently takes the doltish Fergus to make Elinor reconsider how she thinks about her life through the lens of realpolitik.
For Fergus, letting his daughter become a skilled archer and warrior means he is still very proud of the woman his little girl has grown into. In fact, he seems far more at peace with Merida than Elinor. Why? Perhaps it’s due to a simple-minded narcissism in which Fergus sees enough of himself in Merida to know she ultimately will be okay. Perhaps. Though by that measure Elinor’s conflict with Merida would come down to Elinor not seeing enough of herself in Merida to be satisfied with Merida’s potential future.
Yet true to Pixar form, this conflict is not nearly as one-dimensional as it may appear to be at first. Elinor is horrified at her daughter’s impetuous disregard for custom and tradition and the marriage rituals, but not just for the sake of being right. Elinor knows enough clan history to recognize that these customs are what have maintained political stability for the four clans and prevented civil war. It takes little imagination to understand that Fergus and Elinor married within this tradition themselves. What Elinor has possibly forgotten, that we can tell Fergus has not, is that however politically expedient their marriage was, they genuinely have grown to love each other.
When Fergus shouts down the other clan leaders and tells them that none of their sons are worthy of Merida’s hand, we are not seeing the same kind of Disney dad we have seen before. This is a father with some real weaknesses who nevertheless wants Merida to be married to someone she wants to be married to in the same way that he and his own wife Elinor both clearly want to be together.
Unaware of her father’s gracious conclusion, Merida flees home in search of a way to change her fate herself. She ends up following some magical will-o’-the-wisps to a woodcarver’s shop where she finds a retired, wood-carving witch. Merida insists on procuring a spell from the very reluctant witch. The old woman objects that she retired because she had too many unsatisfied customers. She gave up magic because she realized she wasn’t any good at it and is now content to make carvings of bears. Merida doesn’t care. She demands a spell that will reverse her fortune. The witch finally obliges, creating a cake that she instructs Merida to give to her mother. We watch as Merida does so, convincing her mother that the cake is a peace offering. But in a plot device that some might accuse of being a bit too obvious, the cake unsurprisingly transforms Elinor into a bear.
Yes, as storytelling devices go, an overbearing mama bear definitely lacks subtlety. This is something reviewers have avoided discussing in much detail to avoid spoilers. Yet the obviousness is still clever; there are times when a familial conflict should be presented in the plainest and crudest (though not necessarily vulgar) terms. In other words, the thematic telegraphing in Brave works: Just as Merida has her father’s red hair and fiery disposition, Elinor is the overbearing mama bear who does not understand her daughter’s perspective.
In fact, the attempt to be subtle about chronic disappointment between parents and children may not ultimately be possible or practical. While I happen to love animated films that do contain nuance, emotional subtlety and intricacy, I also don’t see a necessary separation between Bugs Bunny and Persepolis. Sometimes presenting a conflict in the most cartoony way possible makes it easier to poke fun at how we often paint non-animated relational conflict in cartoony terms. Sure, Brave could be considered a bit pedestrian for depicting a mother/daughter conflict in such cartoonish fashion, both literally and figuratively, but there is, dare I say, a certain bravery in using a cartoon to depict something that people have to deal with in real life so frequently. The resentments that crop up between mothers and daughters, the way they become disappointed in each other and vow not to be different is not a laughing matter. Such conflicts are easier to play for tears than for laughs. Indeed, many a tragedy has hinged upon this sort of conflict. So it is harder to do what Brave does. But I digress.
Back to the narrative: As the opening scene made clear, bears are the great threat to the kingdom. They are feared and hunted, not welcomed. Realizing this, Merida decides that she and her mother can’t afford to stay within the confines of the village or the kingdom. They escape into the forest where Merida seeks out the witch, who has disappeared for a convention (a wonderful, anachronistic joke). Thankfully, the witch is thoughtful enough to leave a special message for Merida: “Break the seal, look inside. Mend the bond torn by pride.”
Indeed, the pride that has torn the bond between mother and daughter is a pride that is shared by both of them. Perhaps they are more like one another than either one realizes. Indeed, Elinor and Merida are both too proud and stubborn in themselves to appreciate the perspective of the other, the ironies of which the film plays for some solid laughs in the slightly meandering second act in the woods.
Eventually, Merida and her mother work out that the way to break the spell before Elinor is consigned to permanent bear-hood is to mend the tapestry that Merida cut with a sword in her rage. This requires mother and daughter to return to the royal castle where the clans are increasingly at odds, and to work together. Partly due to their absence and partly due to what caused their absence, frustrations between the clans have mounted and the prospect of war has greatly increased.
Once back home, Merida tries to buy time for her mother to find and repair the tapestry by giving a speech to the four clans. Elinor coaches through it, signing instructions with her paw. Just as Fergus had relied on Elinor’s finesse and wisdom to rule the kingdom, so Merida relies on her mother to appease the anger of the clans. In the midst of it all, Merida discovers that the last person who sought to change their fate through the help of the witch was none other than the legendary prince who had wanted to rule his brothers. It turns out that the spell that gave him the strength of ten men also transformed him into the demon bear Mordru who divided the kingdom and left its remains in ruins, never actually ruling the kingdom he sought to gain for himself but, instead, roaming the wooded wilderness attacking people for food. Again, in true Pixar fashion–the protagonists are almost always their own worst enemies–Merida has the epiphany that her motives have been as selfish and destructive as that of Mordru the demon bear.
Likewise, Elinor has come to realize that her realpolitik worldview and desire to shape the destiny of her only daughter was equally motivated by pride. In other words, it is not just Merida who must repent of pride in order to mend their bond, Elinor must do so as well. Together Merida and Elinor (hidden from the clans’ sight) propose to the clan patriarchs that marriage, across the board, should be entered into mutually and voluntarily. While they are larmed at first, soon their respective sons admit that none of them really wanted to be dragged into the arranged marriages, either. Placing family pride ahead of the welfare of children turns out to be a theme that extends beyond Merida’s own clan.
Merida, for her part, discovers that putting her individual quest for control–to change her fate and defy the odds–has brought chaos to clans that are on the brink of war. Proposing voluntary marriage lets Merida (learning from her mother’s diplomacy) provide a way to relieve the clans of the dishonor she did to them at the archery trials. The men go home with their honor restored and their sons relieved to not have to marry Merida against their own wishes. Mother and daughter, meanwhile, have discovered that fate is shared. Merida cannot change her personal fate without this changing the fate of her family and her clan, while Elinor cannot guide the fate of her clan and the kingdom without this guidance having a lifelong impact on her daughter. Queen and princess are confronted with the reality that their idealized self or idealized community cannot come at the expense of the flesh and blood woman or her family or clan.
The central conflict between mother and daughter in Brave is about nothing more or less than expectation. Expectation as it relates to gender, to society, and even to love. Expectation has fostered pride and blinded each of the women to the other, preventing them from truly loving.
Merida refuses to consider that her mother is promoting good and salutory values and practices, just as Elinor cannot see her daughter as anything more than a political bargaining chip. Both have become a stand-in for the Law vis-a-vis the other. Both have allowed their own assumptions about the nature of womanhood to blur their affection for their loved ones and, paradoxically, to endanger the welfare of the kingdom they would both agree they wish to preserve, not least from the attacks of the demon bear Mordru.
In a very real sense, Brave tells the story of how a proud person becomes humble, or, theologically, about how repentance produces love. The bravery that Merida and Elinor must learn is a moral courage that includes confession, compromise, and ultimately, even sacrifice. This does not ensure a simple roadmap to a happy future. Neither Elinor’s law of custom and politics nor Merida’s of the lone warrior being true to herself is adequate to the challenges the kingdom faces. Only mutual love, affection and trust will enable them to prevail against both the external demons they face as well as the internalized laws of expectation for which both mother and daughter nearly sacrificed each other.