Brave (2012) – The 13th Pixar Animated Feature – Directed by Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman – Starring Kelly Macdonald, Julie Walters, Billy Connolly, Emma Thompson, Kevin McKidd, Craig Ferguson, Robbie Coltrane, and John Ratzenberger.
In seemingly every conversation I’ve had about BRAVE over the past few months, or in things I’ve heard people say in person, on Facebook or in the theater, the idea has come up that Meridia (Kelly Macdonald) signals some kind of dramatic shift in the “Disney Princess.” People have said things like, they’ll “finally allow a Disney Princess into their house,” or that Disney has “finally made a positive Princess.” That’s all fine and good – it’s not my intent to tell you how to raise your kids, or point out there there are obviously several Disney Princess movies you’ve either not seen or critically misread.
I am here to say that I’ve just about had it with Meridia being called a Disney Princess. I know this probably matters to almost no one and I realize that given Disney owns Pixar that whatever Pixar does is Disney’s, but I like to think that there’s still a separation between what it means to be a “Disney film” and what it means to be a “Pixar film,” even if John Lasseter is now Chief Creative Officer for Walt Disney Animation and some college kid is probably already or soon to get paid to walk around Disney World in a Meridia costume. Perhaps over time a Disney film and a Pixar film will simply become the same thing, but for now, they’re different.
Disney acknowledges this, too. Despite all the talk about Meridia joining the ranks (as of BRAVE’s release, the Wikipedia page for Disney Princesses even mentions its expected, so you know it’s true), Disney’s official Princess site has yet to list Meridia among the ranks.
All of this Disney Princessification of Meridia rubs me wrong, too, because it completely ignores the very excellent TANGLED from two years ago, a film that wonderfully embraced the Disney Princess past while admitting its flaws and decidedly pushing it forward, too. Rapunzel is a great character and TANGLED is a great movie.
In fact, it’s a better movie than BRAVE.
That is not to say that BRAVE is a bad movie, because it is not a bad movie. It’s a good but not great movie. It’s enjoyable and moving, but it also feels oddly derivative and small. With all of the sweeping vistas and epic set-up, the movie’s ultimate focus on a daughter and her mom learning to put aside their differences and find a middle ground – while the mom has been transformed into a bear (we’ll get to it) – is touching but … lacking.
None of this is Meridia’s fault. The Pixar braintrust (so many people write, produce, direct, and generally have a say in these Pixar films it’s hard to think of them as belonging to a singular individual) has created a really great character. The daughter of a Scottish King, Meridia is a Middle Ages version of a tomboy caught by societal expectations.
Meaning, her mother.
All Meridia wants to do is shoot arrows and ride her horse Angus. All her mother wants her to do is be a proper princess – act like a lady, wear fancy clothes, tame her wild hair, and get married to protect the unity of the four clans. Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson) arranges for a contest to be held to marry Meridia off to one of the first-born sons of the other clans. King Fergus (Billy Connolly) is the kind of king who wants to not be bothered with unpleasant things; he loves his daughter and encourages her wild ways, but also doesn’t want to anger Elinor.
The relationship between Elinor and Fergus is a bit of a letdown because it feels like they’ve come out of Sitcom Casting 101 – he’s the loud, boorish, infantile, man and she’s the woman who’s way too good for him. I expect a bit more out of Pixar than to have their characters feel like discarded ideas for Tim Allen, James Belushi, and Kevin James sitcoms. (There’s a hint that the film is going to get into why these women marry these losers when Elinor indicates her own betrothal was not the most ideal of happenings, but then it just lets it fade away.) It’s nice that the focus here is on the child-parent relationship instead of on the husband-wife relationship, but that brings up another reverberation I felt while watching BRAVE.
How To Train Your Dragon takes this same premise of parents trying to pigeonhole their kids into a societal norm, and delivers a much better film.
In the best sequence of the film, Meridia is beside herself at the idea that she’s going to be forced into a marriage with a kid who wins her at a contest, so using the rules to her advantage, she declares herself an entrant in the contest (after she declared the contest would be archery), and “wins” herself. This sends everyone into a tizzy, of course, which leads to Meridia jumping on Angus and taking off for the forest. She comes across a will-o’-the-wisp, which blaze a trail to a witch’s hut, where Meridia gets a potion that will change her mother, and therefore change her own fate.
This is how her mother gets changed into a bear. What occurs from here out is that Meridia has to care for her mother as she tries to undo the damage she’s done. There’s some really nice, really touching scenes between the two as the proper mother is forced to learn how to catch fish. They’ve only got two days to undo the spell by mending the bond that was severed, which Meridia takes to mean fixing the tapestry that she sliced into during a fight with her mom, but really means (or also means, if you prefer) that they need to mend the damage between them and realize they love each other and accept each other, and it’s actually all very touching.
But it’s just not particularly memorable. The mother-daughter bonding is quite nice, but it serves to make the King-clan stuff come off as nonsense. The clans are all mad because no one is telling them what’s going on and Fergus is rather clueless, and all of them feel completely antithetical to Meridia and Elinor in nearly every way, including the most important: the ladies feel like real people and the men feel like what would happen if Vince Vaughn, Ben Stiller, Will Ferrell, and Danny McBride decided to remake Rob Roy. The film would have been better without them.
There’s a back story here of a big, angry bear that was tricked by the witch a long, long time ago but it only really seems to exist so that we can have a big final action sequence.
All of this sounds rather negative, but this doesn’t mean that BRAVE is a bad movie. It has a good message about parents needing to let their kids find their own way, and kids needing to understand that parents are often right, and it’s a solid end that Meridia ends up re-establishing her familial bonds instead of simply gaining a boyfriend. It’s an enjoyable enough movie, with Meridia’s triplet brothers providing some comedy as they’re always playing pranks and getting turned into bears and generally being a nuisance. It’s a stunningly beautiful movie, too, as Pixar’s animation techniques remain at the top of the class. Yet, there’s something off here, too, and the result is a movie I enjoyed watching but neither thrilled me nor challenged me.
BRAVE simply feels too simple, too safe, too unoriginal.
Maybe Meridia is a better character than some of the Disney Princesses, but she’s not in an entirely different class, either. For all of her talk of being independent and not wanting to conform to society’s expectations, after her mother is turned into a bear Meridia becomes the embodiment of those stereotypical gender roles: she becomes a caregiver, she sews, she cooks, and at the end they even damsel-in-distress her, as it’s her mother (in bear form) who defeats the mean, angry bear. The movie’s message that you can be yourself and conform to expected gender roles isn’t a bad one, but it’s not exactly a rousing one, either. I enjoyed that BRAVE didn’t simply give us a “kid is right, parent is wrong” story, and that as much as she conforms to gender roles to help her mom, her mother also sees that there’s real value in Meridia’s atypical abilities to hunt and shoot and be independent.
It speaks to the high quality of Pixar’s films that BRAVE is closer to the studios worst film than its best because any company would be proud to produce BRAVE. For Pixar, though, BRAVE is a bit of a disappointment. This is a good movie, but not a great one, and Pixar’s unbelievable success has led me to expect great ones.