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.