Review: Pixar’s ‘Brave’ Is A Powerful But Wobbly Feminist Fairy Tale

Review: Pixar's 'Brave' Is A Powerful But Wobbly Feminist Fairy Tale

For those wanting to go in cold, there are some spoilers ahead.

There are a lot of firsts associated with “Brave,” Disney/Pixar‘s new feature, set in the misty Scottish highlands. It’s the studio’s first period piece (“The Incredibles‘” captivating retro-futurism doesn’t count, it seems), their first fairy tale, and their first film led by a female character (in this case Princess Merida, voiced with strength and conviction by Kelly Macdonald). It was, at one point, also the studio’s first movie directed by a woman (Brenda Chapman). And it’s these firsts, combined with a charming atmosphere and layers of genuine heart, that make you want to love “Brave” more than you actually do. Because for all these breakthroughs, “Brave” feels hopelessly safe, less a Pixar trailblazer than yet another entry in the Disney princess line of films and products. Brave it is not.

Over the years Pixar has gotten a lot of flak over its lack of female characters. While this isn’t completely fair (the speech Elastigirl gives Violet in “The Incredibles” is Feminism 101, and the gender-bending, rainbow-colored female bird Kevin in “Up” was sufficiently progressive) but there is enough of a void to make “Brave” seem really big and important – a feminist fairy tale from Pixar? Fuck yeah!

What’s so interesting about the marketing of “Brave” is that all the footage and artwork thus far released has been culled from the first twenty minutes or so of the movie. It’s in this stretch that we meet fair Merida (Macdonald), her bright red hair an unwieldy tangle, who lives in a kingdom with her mother Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson) and father King Fergus (Billy Connolly) as well as three annoying, rambunctious brothers (the triplets Harris, Hubert and Hamish). Merida is less interested in the finery of being a princess (the tenets taught, stringently, by the queen), and more interested in shooting her bow (she’s an ace archer) and riding through the highlands with her trusty steed Angus. All of this stuff is beautiful and captivating, the camera gliding over trees and hilltops, everything rendered in a kind of vibrant, slightly heightened realism. And when what appears to be the main thrust of the story kicks in – Merida’s family wanting her to engage in the selection of a suitor – it’s so good you start to vibrate.  

The lord of three kingdoms show up to woo her (led by Craig Ferguson, Robbie Coltrane and Kevin McKidd, of course), each more pathetic than the last. Merida can barely keep from rolling her eyes, and when a physical test is proposed, the winner of which will win her hand, she eagerly suggests archery. During the game she steps up, takes off her royal garb, and says she wants to attempt for her own hand. (Of course, she totally owns the archery.) It’s a powerful sentiment, the most unabashedly feminist moment in recent fairy tale memory (dating back to at least 1998’s “Mulan,” which featured a princess who, before that, was an androgynous, cross-dressing warrior) and it makes you want to stand up and pump your fist with pride (if you’re more out of touch you might scream out something like “You go girl!” but we wouldn’t suggest it).

It’s just that, *spoilers* after this sequence, the most memorable and moving of the film, it totally switches gears. The queen is furious at Merida, and can’t understand why she would do something that she feels is totally selfish (if Merida doesn’t take the hand of one of the suitors, it could lead to kingdom-wide war like something out of “Game of Thrones” except with less boobs and beheadings). Merida, outraged, grabs Angus and heads for the hills (quite literally). In a brief prologue it was established that Merida can see into the magical realm, drawn there by small spirits called “wisps” (their design and function owes a debt to Hayao Miyazaki’s bobby-headed spirits in “Princess Mononoke”) which are supposed to point you in the direction of your fate. On this day, they lead Merida to a ramshackle house anyone who’s read a storybook would know to avoid.

In the house is where the movie really begins – it’s where Merida meets a mysterious Wise Woman (Julie Walters), a witch who is obsessed with wood-carvings of bears, and who offers Merida the chance to change her mother (with the help of a little dark magic cake). Returning to the castle, Merida gives her mother the magic cake, thinking that it will change her mind. Instead, it literally transforms the queen – into a huge, hulking bear. That’s right – “Brave” is really about a princess who accidentally transforms her mother into a bear. The movie changes, too, going from the tale of a plucky young girl who discovers herself and her power (and causes everyone else to acknowledge the same) to being both broader and more simplistic. It’s now about the relationship between her and her mother (Pixar can never walk away from a good buddy movie set-up), and instead of a young girl’s empowerment it’s about things like responsibility, entitlement, selfishness and communication. Things get much, much less interesting.

And it’s a huge shame, too. The bear transformation takes the wind out of the movie. What would have been amazing would have been if her self-empowerment somehow melded with her relationship with the magical world and she could have brought magic back to a land that had stopped believing in it, just as she starts to really believe in herself. But instead it’s an awkward buddy movie, made all the more awkward by the fact that the bear doesn’t talk, it just kind of growls around. The design of the movie remains unflaggingly brilliant — in particular the design of the queen bear seems at once familiar and altogether new (a rare feat considering how many animated bears, from Baloo to “Brother Bear,” we’ve seen throughout the years), and while the stakes don’t seem particularly high, especially since the queen was kind of a bitch to our more innately lovable princess, but the idea that, if the spell holds, the soul of the queen will evaporate from the bear’s body is pretty nifty.

Unfortunately, the script for “Brave,” worked on by Chapman, Steve Purcell, Irene Mecchi, and Chapman’s directorial successor, Mark Andrews, is wobbly and overtly segmented, with each section of the movie never having enough time to fully breathe or gain any traction. Some sections of the movie are just tonally amiss – there’s some truly clumsy narration that bookends the film and a moment when Merida returns to the witch’s hut and is greeted with a magical “answering machine” that feels like it was cut-and-pasted from an entirely different movie altogether. The last act, in particular, is a mess, with complicated relationships having to get tidily wrapped up, a whole lot of magical mumbo jumbo being unleashed on the kingdom (amusingly, the triplets take a bite of the same magic cake and turn into adorable cubs), various clans on the brink of PG-rated skirmishes, and, hilariously, a moment towards the end where Merida goes out of her way to assure middle-American audiences that she is not a lesbian (even though she totally is and the movie would have been much stronger if it had actually admitted it). *end spoilers*

While “Brave” would have just been a cute, visually dazzling but ultimately disappointing Pixar movie, it feels graver and more serious because it’s been this long since they’ve taken on a female protagonist and this really should have been a bolder, more experimental exercise. In the last few years, like clans of Scottish tribesman, the houses of Disney and Pixar have begun to merge (for evidence look no further than the Randy Newman songs in “The Princess and the Frog” or the newly opened Carsland expansion in Disney California Adventure), and “Brave” seems like a natural progression of that melding. This doesn’t feel like “WALL-E,” it feels like “Tangled.” And “Tangled” (and “Brave”) are perfectly fine animated movies, with “Brave” at times reaching staggering emotional depths in the mother/daughter relationship, but it’s not enough. It’s too unfocused and cute and lacking in memorable set pieces (an enraged, enchanted bear named Mordu can’t even scare up any excitement). In the end, “Brave” stops just short of being truly magical. [B]

This Article is related to: Reviews and tagged , , , ,


Comments

Moe

Well I think Brave do was a very disappointing movie, and Pixar couldn't make the best out of it. Above all I don't like how they portrayed Merida. Why did they set Merida's character as a skilled archer if they wouldn't even let her use her skills? They say Merida is "Strong and Brave!! Not like u weakling girly disney princesses!", But all Merida did when Mordu the Bear attacked was just scream and run. (She did confront her dad but after that..) Just like traditional disney princesses!!

The only difference between Merida and them, is that it wasn't Prince charming who came to her aid. It was her Mum… All she did to retrieve the spell was SEWING which I think the feminists wouldn't be very fond of, anyway her archery didn't do anything special during the movie. And I also didn't like the fact that male characters in this movie were all bunch of dopes, even Merida's father!! And Merida's father used to love his little girl and probably a better listener than his wife, so I didn't get it when he locked merida in her room and called her insane.

I think disney's Mulan is more like a "Brave & independent woman". While Merida just ends up being a good daughter and free spirited princess, Mulan becomes a hero! And saves her entire nation, not only did she changed her faith, she changed her whole nations' faith.. That's what we call a female hero… hehe.. To me, the real protagonist of this movie was Merida's mother, who started off as an elegant kangaroo-mother but became brave enough to challenge Mordu for her daughter and finally won.. She's the REAL BRAVE one, not merida.

timmy

Brave was a excellent pixar movie! Wall-e was stupid, I mean come on a robot that can only say his own name in the first hour of the movie? how dum. Who ever wrote this review is a fucking idiot with bad taste in movies!

Blair

It literally is a story about the relationship between a mother and daughter in her preteen years. I watch this about once a day with my daughter, we both love it, and i tear up at the end every time. It's a fantastic film and much better than the whole "oh woe is me, princess in distress spiel/romance that goes with EVERY DISNEY PRINCESS" This one leaves out the Romance and focuses on a much stronger relationship, the mother and daughter. The Reviewere clearly is too feminist too see what is actually going on here, and possibly has mommy issues, but I won't fret. Brave was AWESOME and I would prefer that Merida be the princess she looks up to as opposed to Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty. And as far as questioning the sexuality of Merida, she is clearly "presexual" as one person mentioned below and is simply more interested in adventure and living as opposed to wanting to be tied down in a relationship (which is a VERY feminist ideal, and I'm shocked that "mommy issues" up there missed that).

Melissa

I feel that as other commenters have said in better words, that it is better for the plot turn and gives the story much more heart, which seems to me to be very much Pixar, not Disney. I have never cried at a Disney movie. Not a one. But I have cried at nearly all Pixar movies, and this one is no exception.

Lee

Btw, the whole 'lesbian' thing? That wasn't even remotely an issue, never even really came up. Merida is more 'pre-sexual' than anything else in the film, she just doesn't seem to care about romance, of any kind… this does not point towards potential lesbianism, unless that sort of thing is on your mind already. So why drag that into it, kicking and screaming? The scene the reviewer is talking about sure didn't come across as any kind of "I'm straight, really" reassurance. I think Drew is imposing his own mindset on the proceedings.

Lee

I saw it, and I have to say, the reviewer just didn't seem to 'get' it.

The movie's stronger for the bear plot-twist, not weaker. It's a perfect vehicle for empowering not only Merida, but her mother as well, and their relationship.

I think the reviewer is annoyed that Pixar-Disney didn't make the film *he* wanted to see. But they made a very good one nonetheless.

Jadis

No moreso than Merida is. First of all, the mother is a produt of her era and upbringing. She admits in her disussion with her husband that she also initially had reservations about an arranged marriage, but she went through with it and she came to love her husband and is happy. Elinor is not selling her daughter into a situation which she herself experienced misery in (which is often the case in actual history and several stories with similar situation). Elinor is happy with her husband and she believes that Merida will also find the same happiness. This is a naive and overly optimistic presumtion, but nonetheless it is the one she's operating on. Although her throwing Merida's bow into the fire seemed harsh, but parents are still HUMAN. She was frustrated by Merida's rebellion, her handling of the archery event, her attitude, and pushed to her limits when Merida severed the tapestry she'd made for her. She acted in the heat of the moment and almost immediately regretted the act, stuck her hand into the fire to retrieve the bow, and expressed remorse for it. Contrast this against Merida who took and entire movie to admit her own mistake and express remore for it.

Furthermore, with station and privlidge comes responsibility. The arranged marriage is a tradition constucted to preserve peace among the clans and her refusal could result in civil war within the kingdom. Merida is aware of this. Even so, it's not even so much the fact that Merida rejects this tradition that's problematic but the WAY she initally does it, by embaressing the sons of the clan chiefs. Determined to opposed the marriage, the responsible way of handling it would have been to have the exact conversation she had towards the end of the movie at the beginning. The movie is doing a good job of showing how rebellion and the trope of the 'rebellious character' is glorified, but it can be taken to far and have consequences. That sometimes if you take the concept of 'freedom' to far it can also result in a problematic rejection of ones responsibility.

I think it's also interesting to compare Merida with the three sons. While they might not be portrayed as ideal husband material, they're not unkind or awful boys. Towards the end of the movie at least one of the boys admit that they weren't in favor of the marriage either, but went along with it anyway. Although it could be argued that the fact that Merida is a woman is a significant element of reading the difference in actions and motivation when compared to the three sons, I don't think that's as strong an element in the movie's universe. True, Elinor is genteel and feminine, but she is not a shrinking violent or a cowed wife. She has agency, she has clear authority — in fact it is evident in the film that she seems to weild even more authority than her husband, puting a stop to the fighting between the clan chiefs more than once and with them calling for her in regards to a final verdict on the situation at hand.

That said, it still remains a fact the Elinor is also in the wrong and her actions just as problematic at Merida's. She neglects having a genuine conversation with Merida and seeing things from her perspective, in favor of drilling her in protocol and playing the 'do as I say, because I'm your mother, and I know best' card. Furthermore Elinor is excessively idealistic and sheltered — which I think is why her venture out into the wild and the "fishing scene" was so important for her development. It gave her an opportunity to see that skills beyond those she's been teaching her daughter have relevance and that there are things in life beyond her narrowed world view and experiences.

In the end both Merida and Elinor are stubborn extremists who need to see the middle ground. To find the way to balance responsibility with freedom.

Loki

I loved the mother daughter dynamic which is rarely present in films, especially "kids" movies. I thought the main character was a strong heroine which is a rarity in movies. The one thing that kept popping into my thoughts throughout the movie was…why are all the males characters in this movie either..stupid buffoons or physically grotesque mockeries of the male form? I applaud the strong female lead but why put the males down to do it? Meridia's father is a dumb oaf that couldn't form 2 coherent sentences, her brothers defined as unruly animals and the rest of the males were so heavily stereotyped you might as well used cardboard props. I worry if this sends a message that in order to propel women's rights and equality of the sexes you have marginalize the other?

Bene

I actually feel that the movie becomes more feminist and interesting when it moves away from the "Mulan-like" premise. All the Disney princesses are somewhat rebellious, in spite of what people say (jasmine doesn't want her suitors, Ariel runs away to land…)
It's much more powerful that a girl has to find her own strength not only through the stereotypical rebellion to traditions but through actually building a real relationship with her mom, creating a space for "communication" and dealing (although in a magical realm) with daily things.
We have seen in plenty of movies, TV series and cartoons, (more or less famous) a scene where a girl is better at archery and totally makes the boys look bad and it's important that she "comes of age" not only through through men's skills like Mulan (although she still uses the bow), nor just waiting for a true love kiss. When the mother is turned it actually gets deeper. It's about a teenage girl who understands for the first time the consequences of her action, that forces larger and stronger than her in the world and turns her mom in one of the thing she fears the most, reducing her to something that can' talk (sort of like when a mother has a baby and has to understand its needs without words), which is quite powerful considering that's a mother biggest effort in the first days, and no matter how "bitchy" is what will always make her your mother.

InternJack

Ah no. Ah no.

Up until the current spate of reviews, this movie was promoted as Merida's journey. It wasn't billed as a buddy movie. It wasn't promoted as a mother daughter relationship movie. It WAS promoted as a journey of a person who deals with her free choice and the choices imposed on her by family and responsibility.

Are there two films?

K2

Sort of like the sequel to Disney's "Brother Bear" – "Sister Bear".

Seriously though, Disney animation went down the tubes when it became a slave to PC grievance mongering. Too bad Pixar has decided to follow the same path. Perhaps the creative fertilization has been going the wrong way?

Emily

This is an awful review…

SONOFHERO

What the hell kind of sick blog is this..DYKEland or something??..you wanted the princess to be lesbian??..lol…if we rounded up all the lesbians like the people that wrote this blog and stuck them on a magical island…then we could come back in a hundred years and it would be empty…lol

Simoa

Ha ha ha ha ha. Brave is not even a little bit feminist though. It's all about mothers and daughters. It's about fate, taking it into your own hands, and undoing the reckless mistakes that you don't even own up to. Which is exactly what Merida does. She's a vibrant character who refuses to take responsibility and must also find remorse for having turned her mother into a bear, someone she actually does love. And wow, Elinor is a bitch???????????? UM, both her and Merida are never villains in this film. They're pitted against each other and then must find it within themselves to change and reconnect. Also, of course the bear doesn't talk. She goes through changes which offer signals that the spell will become permanent and she'll be a real bear forever, a la demon bear charmer Mor'du. And your lesbian point makes…zero sense, much like this review. If you're not captivated by the mother/daughter dynamic, more power to you, but everything else reflects disappointment that it wasn't a raging feminist film, which is never was going to be.

Scott

Just because she's really stubborn, independent, and doesn't want to marry doesn't make her a lesbian…..it makes her a bitch.

tom

**spoilers***

So, in essence, the whole mother-turning-into-a-bear-plotline was put into place to show how a teenage girl's attempts at bravery falls flat on its face. Yet another example of how Pixar is completely anti-women and sexist.

***end spoilers****

TJ

Dude, I know you (and the legions of girls on Tumblr who seem to be in the same camp on this) are trying to be empowering with the whole "first lesbian animated heroine!" thing; your heart's totally in the right place, but the idea that "she doesn't want to get married, therefore she *must* be a lesbian" is just the flip side of the same old coin.

keke

don't diss Tangled. It's Disney Animation's Best movie in Years
Rapunzel <3

Mike zufelt

Obviously the person that reviewed this is gay. And needs to proofread.

Autumn

This review kind of speaks out of both sides of its mouth, especially as it regards cliches.

"Instead of a young girl’s empowerment it’s about things like responsibility, entitlement, selfishness and communication. Things get much, much less interesting."

So an exploration of those concepts in a children's movie is safe, tired, a retread? Really? What would have made it more unique, then?

"What would have been amazing would have been if her self-empowerment somehow melded with her relationship with the magical world and she could have brought magic back to a land that had stopped believing in it."

…Oh.

Ted

I'm actually mildly curious if where the movie goes off the rails is where the "creative differences" emerged when Chapman was at the helm.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *