Pixar’s Subtle Bravery

I recently took my daughters to see Brave, the new movie from Pixar and Disney, and I found it thought provoking. Brave introduces Merida, a feisty Scottish princess with a bad habit of laying her weapons on the dinner table. Like most Disney princesses, Merida feels stifled by her current situation and attempts to makes some changes. Things don’t go according to plan, but it all works out in the end. The movie is beautifully animated, and the voice acting, especially Emma Thompson’s, is excellent. On the whole, Brave is Pixar at its best, but it might have one flaw. It might be too subtle.

As usual Pixar breaks new ground with this film. However, audiences and critics are not noticing its freshness because this genre is so familiar and the film is so subtle. Brave asks its audience to think about values and society, just as Pixar’s Wall-E and The Incredibles did. However, Brave whispers when other Pixar films have been more outspoken.

The first question that the movie poses is “What does it mean to be brave?” The narrator answers by telling the audience that bravery means “changing your fate.” Here’s where things start to get a little subtle. What is Merida’s fate? Audiences are very familiar with Disney’s “princess script” pioneered by The Little Mermaid. The princess feels trapped, must throw off societal or familial expectations, and finds happiness by following her heart. Merida’s story follows this same pattern to a certain extent. She’s a headstrong girl who is destined for an arranged marriage, and she decides that she needs a way out. It seems obvious that an unhappy marriage is the fate that Merida must change. But I don’t think that’s it at all.

Merida is headstrong. She resents the training that her mother, the queen, has given her. By the time Merida’s unsuitable suitors have arrived, mother and daughter are fighting like only mothers and daughters can. Merida defies her parents and humiliates her suitors. Is that the beginnings of her bravery? I don’t think so. I think that’s the beginning of her fate. Each quarrel and misunderstanding leads to the next, and Merida’s fate is not an unhappy marriage. Her fate is rebellion against her family and her people. She’s headed for disaster, and through a selfish choice brings havoc to her family. Her fate is to destroy her family and her people. She needs bravery to change this fate. It won’t be easy.

I’ll offer a few reasons to justify this idea that a wrecked world is Merida’s fate. First, the movie uses the character Mor’du, who had torn his own family and people apart, as a warning to Merida, showing her the consequences of her actions. Second, in order to start changing this fate Merida must mimic her mother in dealing with the quarreling nobles. She realizes that her mother was training her for a greater purpose than self-actualization. Her mother had prepared her to hold a kingdom together. Third, at the movie’s climax, Merida tearfully apologizes to her mother. She admits that she was wrong. This scene is huge. Breathtaking, really. A princess in a Disney movie apologizing? Admitting her sin to her mother is Merida’s true act of bravery.

The Little Mermaid created the “princess script” that later princesses have followed. I like to think of Brave as the anti-Little Mermaid. Ariel and Merida both have red hair and fiery spirits. Both run away to escape oppressive familial expectations. Both seek the aid of a witch to change their situations. But here the scripts diverge. Ariel makes a huge mess and sits back while other people sacrifice to clean it up. At the end everyone apologizes to her, and she gets to live happily ever after. Merida, on the other hand, makes a huge mess. But she realizes that it’s all her fault. To restore order she must start becoming the woman her mother prepared her to be. She has to say that she is sorry, and this act brings reconciliation. And we’re pretty sure that Merida won’t be marrying some prince charming. She’s still expected to marry one of the comical suitors, but they’ll have to win her hand through love rather than through a test of strength.

But like I said, Pixar was almost too subtle with this movie. You have to be paying attention to see how drastically the “princess script” has been rewritten. I can’t decide if this is a good thing or a bad thing. I’m disappointed that audiences aren’t noticing how clever the movie really is. On the other hand, this subtle shift may have longer lasting effects, and perhaps this subtle re-scripting of a princess’s duty will gain traction in American pop-culture. This challenge to Ariel is long overdue. I know I run the risk of sounding hysterical, but the values of The Little Mermaid threaten the very foundations of Western Civilization. Just follow your heart? What rubbish. Sometimes the brave act involves admitting that our hearts do not yearn for proper things.

11 responses

  1. Very good thoughts about Merida’s change, but you seem to be quite positive about the mother’s instructions when the movie seems to present a mutual change in both mother and daughter. Both women seem to come to a middle ground position. The final scene shows that a great change occurred in the mother also.

    I didn’t necessarily think Merida’s apology was about her rejection of her mother’s original advice, but more about the mess that she got her mom into by her foolish actions. She didn’t come back to her mom and say you were right and I was wrong. She didn’t ultimately become the ‘lady-like’ woman her mother attempted to train her to be.

    In many ways, by being allowed to marry because of love, Merida ultimately got her way and changed her fate by following her heart.

    I can certainly see the aspects that you pointed out, but maybe the reason why it was so subtle to you is that it wasn’t consistently portrayed. Its possible that there was an inconsistency in the story planning about what it was attempting to communicate.

  2. I think JM is right. Also, Merida’s mother does just as much apologizing. It felt to me like they were going for a “meet in the middle” kind of resolution instead of just reversing the princess script.

  3. Thanks for your comments, and I think you both make some valid points. There is an element of “meet in the middle, ” but I’d argue that the middle is much closer to the queen than it is to Merida.

    JM, makes a good point that the subtlety comes from a certain lack of consistency. I think that this lack of consistency probably exists because Pixar changed the director towards the end of production.

    In spite of some inconsistency, the movie makes two steps forward for every step back. An example. Step forward: The young people must honor the tradition. Step back: we allow the young people to marry for love. Step forward again: Merida notes that the tradition was less than a generation old, so it’s not really a tradition at all. Pixar is walking a fine line. In this way, they can rewrite the “princess script” and still keep the movie acceptable to American sensibilities.

    Like I said, it’s almost too subtle.

    • I didn’t know that they changed directors partway through. Thank you for that information… everything makes a lot more sense now. I wish that hadn’t happened… I feel like this film had so much unused potential. Changing directors partway through is a terrible idea for any movie… that makes me sad that they would even try that.

  4. Here are three elements that I’ve been thinking about. (1) the repitition of four. Four brothers and the fourth becomes Mor’du. How did the queen know the story? Could it have really been all that long before? Four clans. Four first-born children. Four children born to the King and Queen. (2) Clothing. Meridah’s straight-jacket dress represents unbending tradition and law, but also the anxieties of her parents. Her mother’s teaching isn’t just a passing-on of what’s expected, it is meant to give her daughter whole what she had to struggle to piece together. Meridah’s dress is not all that different from her mom’s. Meridah, of course, rips the dress. Her mother’s dress is also ripped. The scene in the river is a kind of washing away of the past. Her mother is an unclothed bear, and Meridah’s dress is soaked. At the transformation, the Queen is naked underneath the tapestry of her family. And then she and her daughter are re-clothed in new dresses that are loose, open, and beautiful. There is an interesting parallel in the men, and nudity plays a role there as well. The men are half-undressed with the removal of their kilts–the dress that symbolizes their tribal identity and loyalty. Her brothers go completely naked. (3) Food. A good deal of trouble is taken about food. The sweets of indulgent and runaway childishness. The haggis of unwanted adulthood. The raw and cooked fish. And, of course, the tart.

  5. Another interesting string of thoughts contrasts Merida with Katniss Everdeen….Merida is “oppressed” by a loving (if over ‘bearing’) mother…Katniss is oppressed by a world class pharoah and all of his apparatus. Merida shoots at targets. Katniss must shoot to kill in order to stay alive. You are correct that Brave is a subtle invitation to our princesses to get serious. Hunger Games is a quantum leap beyond Brave in that respect.

  6. Haha comparing Brave to the hunger games? What will they think of next? Comparing Wall-E to Star Trek or Up to Around the world in 80 days?

    Back on topic, When i watched the movie it seemed to punish Merinda, her family, and her entire world for that matter whenever she attempted to blindly “follow her heart” without even considering the impact of her selfishness. What i grasped was that at the end of the movie Merinda had realized that there were stark consequences for her actions, and although she was given more freedom, she became became more conscious of others.

  7. I would agree that Pixar’s message is weak, but I wouldn’t necessarily describe this weakness as “subtle”… I think it was more *confused*. Whereas the other Pixar films all have a very strong message, I think the message of this one got muddled by the change in directors, attempting to conform to society’s way of thinking, and perhaps even an over-attention to the artistic animation. It is by far the most ambitious and breathtaking animated film ever produced, but perhaps all the attention put into the ‘look’ of the film detracted from the message and the storyboarding. I was dissapointed when I walked out of the theater, because beyond the point of mother-daughter reconciliation and condemning blatent selfishness I wasn’t really sure what they were getting at. The storyline left me wanting.

  8. Saw the movie two days ago. I don’t think it’s on par with so many other Pixar films. I agree with Collin, though, that the princess plot line has been altered, however awkwardly and incompletely. I also like the idea that Merida’s “fate” is to tear her family apart. This didn’t occur to me in the theatre but made a lot of sense after I came home and read Collin’s piece. Maybe we could say a corner has been turned with this movie. And maybe someday a movie will show tradition and the sacrifice of personal happiness for family and people as the best course to take.

  9. Pingback: Ten Things I Learned from a Year’s Worth of Blogging « COLLIN GARBARINO

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