No, Merida is NOT the typical Snow White/Cinderella-style vapid heroine, whose only aspiration is marriage to a total stranger–handsome, but still a stranger–her reward for being pretty and well-behaved. Merida is a strong, capable, self-rescuing princess.
But the film busts other tropes, as well. For instance, there are no evil stepmothers or wicked witches, driven to destroy the princess out of jealousy. Because, you know, the princess is now the fairest in the land? Why is that, by the way? Male villains are given straightforward motivations like greed and lust for power, but the typical female (Disney) villain’s megalomania is nothing more than a beauty routine gone out of control. For once, I’d like to see a villainess who isn’t hung up on beauty, who wants to rule because she knows she’s bigger, badder and smarter than the current crop of idiots who are running things.
Speaking of big bads….Brave departs from formula there with the absence of an absolutely evil antagonist who is out to suck the joy out of the universe. There’s a scary “other” lurking in the woods, but that character’s job is to add an additional plot complication, not take over Scotland. At its heart, Brave is a family drama, a mother-daughter film.
Now, boys, that doesn’t mean Brave is a talky, blah-blah, film with no action. I don’t like those either. It has sword fighting, archery, things break and people belch: all the stuff of great movies!
The story. In long ago Scotland, there lives a king named Fergus (Billy Connolly) who has four children and a lovely wife, Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson). Along with their young sons, the hyperactive triplets, they have a teenage daughter, Merida (Kelly McDonald). Merida is Daddy’s girl. As in she’s fearless and enjoys hobbies like galloping across the Scottish highlands on her trusty Clydesdale, Angus, rock climbing and archery. Queen Elinor, however, finds herself in the wrong movie, since she longs for an old-fashioned Disney princes, the kind who is demure, well-spoken and doesn’t bring her weapons to the table. Therein lies the conflict.
Things come to a head when Elinor arranges a tourney, inviting three of the most eligible bachelors in Scotland to compete for her daughter’s hand in marriage. Merida, who doesn’t want to be married in the first place, takes one look at the losers on the field, and refuses to play along. There’s an angry clash of wills and, in a teenage huff, Merida rides out into the woods where she encounters a strange little hut, home to a witch, no woodcarver, no witch, woodcarver…. See, the witch hasn’t had much luck with magicking, so she’s decided to take up woodcarving. She’s quite talented, but sales aren’t that good in the middle of nowhere. Location, location, location.
Merida agrees to buy all her inventory if the witch will craft a spell to “change” her mother. The witch agrees and whips up a magic sponge cake. Although the witch is a pleasant sort, she’s also dotty and forgets to pass on a crucial factoid about the spell. Merida takes the treat home to mother, who agreeably, tries it. And changes.
Oops! Not what Merida had in mind.
The result is a kind of furry Freaky Friday where only Mom gets zapped by the spell’s mojo. It’s up to Merida to find a way to get Elinor back to normal and protect her from King Fergus and the visiting warriors. In her present form, Elinor is now a future fur coat, no longer the woman Fergus married. Along the way, of course, lessons are learned and mother and daughter patch up their relationship. Happy endings ensue because this is a kid’s movie.
I’d agree that this doesn’t have the narrative complexity of other Pixar films, Toy Story, for instance. Nor does it have the clever commentary on society and genre conventions of The Incredibles (another family-centric) film. E.g. lines like:
Helen: I can’t believe you don’t want to go to your own son’s graduation.
Bob: It’s not a graduation. He is moving from the 4th grade to the 5th grade.
Helen: It’s a ceremony!
Bob: It’s psychotic! They keep creating new ways to celebrate mediocrity, but if someone is genuinely exceptional…
But Brave is not that kind of movie. It’s driven primarily by internal conflicts; repairing the damaged mother and daughter relationship is key to the plot line. The absence of a cackling villain and a romantic subplot is actually a bold move on Pixar’s part. Of course, had the storyline included a love interest, I reckon many critics would have whined that Pixar was bowing to traditional fairy tale tropes.
Anyway, the animation is gorgeous, with breathtaking Scottish vistas, dark and creepy forests, and…Merida’s amazing head of wild red hair.
Brave may not be Pixar’s greatest offering, but it’s tremendously entertaining, and yes, cliché busting. Recommended.