The highly anticipated Brave arrived in theatres today. I was anxious to see what Pixar achieved with its first female protagonist so I snuck out for a matinée sans children. Having read on Common Sense Media that there were “a couple of scary sequences involving a large angry bear,” I also wanted to preview the film before letting my five-year-old son see it.
(There are spoilers here, so if you plan to see the film, you might want to stop reading.)
The film is based on a familiar plotline that never seems to get old, no many how ways it is told—conflict between generations. Queen Elinor is frustrated with her daughter, the princess Merida, who is anything but princess-like in her behaviour. Merida prefers riding her horse and taking target practice with her bow and arrow to lessons in music and diction. She eats with gusto and regularly puts her bow on the dinner table, much to the chagrin of her mother.
The conflict is set up nicely, and comes to a head when Merida finds out her mother has invited three suitors to the castle to seek her hand in marriage. Merida stands up for herself and, in dramatic fashion, announces that she will decide her own fate. After a fight with her mother in which some very harsh words are said, Merida follows some will-of-the-wisps to a witch’s hut and asks for a spell to “change” her mother. She has no idea what that change will be and is shocked when her mother is turned into a bear—creatures detested by her father since he lost a leg in a battle with a monstrous bear named Mor’du.
Merida is a great character. Unlike many of her princess counterparts from other animated films, she is completely un-sexualized. She is strong, smart, and, yes, brave. Her mother is equally strong in her insistence that Merida be a “real” princess. (While children might not get the significance, there is a brilliant scene in which Elinor ties Merida’s corset strings. Merida complains she can’t breathe—a perfect metaphor for the suffocating and constricting roles into which females were forced in those days.) Merida is not without her flaws, a nice change from the exceedingly virtuous princesses that often appear in movies. She loses her temper in a scene with her mother and refuses to accept responsibility for the witch’s curse, blaming the witch for taking it to extremes instead of blaming herself for seeking out the spell in the first place. This being a children’s movie, she learns lessons in appreciation and acknowledges her deep love for her mother in the film’s conclusion.
Once Elinor is transformed into a bear (a somewhat frightening scene) Merida helps her escape before she is hunted down by the king and the visiting suitors’ families.
The storyline between Merida and Elinor will likely seem predictable to adults, but there are some touching scenes. Even though Elinor-as-bear cannot talk, it is clear that she and Merida are repairing their relationship while they hide in the woods. They eventually return to the castle and share a lovely scene in which Elinor manages to communicate with her daughter who, as an articulate and outspoken girl, is brokering a peace between the brawling suitors’ families while also asking for a change in attitude toward marriage. It turns out that her suitors feel the same way as Merida, wanting to marry for love, not family obligations.
So what about the males? They are mostly caricatures. King Fergus is mostly a decent father—he shows affection to his sons, gives Merida her first bow and arrow, and defends his daughter’s right to “fight,” saying, “Princess or not, learning to fight is essential” (or words to that effect). But when the rival suitors and their retinues end up in a brawl, he proves ineffective in breaking it up and joins in. It falls to Elinor to restore order. (It should also be noted that Fergus turns rather violent in his pursuit of the bears and even shoves Merida out of the way in the climactic scene.) Merida’s younger brothers—triplets—are expert brats who, according to Merida, never get into trouble, although they end up helping her in the end.
As Ms. Magazine pointed out in its review, the three suitors provide some commentary on prevailing notions of masculinity, saying that “men are shown as adopting various masculine tropes as they try to out-macho one another to win Merida’s hand.” Definitely true, although I’m not sure young kids would get the satire.
The fact that the suitors agree with Merida about marrying out of choice is a nice twist that I wasn’t expecting. But the constant brawling and buffoonery among the males shows the difficulty that Hollywood seems to have in creating a movie with decent examples of both sexes. Is Brave telling us that the presence of strong women in a kids’ film needs to be counterbalanced by goofy men? An extreme thought perhaps, but in this film all of the men are shown to be pretty juvenile and prone to violent outbursts. The males are minor characters to be sure and they are there, in part, to provide comic relief, but a little intelligence and balance would be welcome.
For me, the most surprising thing about this film was the violence. Perhaps I am guilty of stereotyping in assuming that a film with a female protagonist would include adventure and action without a high degree of violence, but wow, I was shocked. There are knives thrown, including a cleaver to the head of a stuffed bear. As Elinor in bear form begins to turn more wild than tame, she nearly attacks her daughter.
And Mor’du is truly frightening,as this image shows. Merida and Elinor save the day at the end of the film—a nice change from most movies in which even the most courageous females are pushed aside to make room for male heroes—but the final battle between Elinor the bear and Mor’du is extremely nasty, capped by a very scary scene in which Mor’du pins Merida to the ground and very nearly closes his mouth on her head. The stuff of nightmares for sure.
While Brave succeeds in giving children a strong, un-sexualized female protagonist, it fails to achieve excellence overall because of its excessive violence and one-dimensional male characters.
I can’t help but think that Pixar lost confidence is its very likable protagonist and her compelling if familiar story, fearing that she would not appeal to the all-important male audience on her own, and believing they needed to pad the story with silly sight gags and lots of weapons and hand-to-hand combat in order to attract male viewers. It is wonderful to see Pixar step outside their comfort zone with their first female protagonist, but they need to ditch the gratuitous violence and puerile humour* in order to do their heroine justice.
* Examples include mooning, men walking around bare-bottomed, and the use of a maid’s ample bosom to hide a key only to have one of the sons dive into her dress to retrieve it. The latter scene is implied but not shown.