Long Take: Reclaiming Brave

Viewed June 27, 2012

Pixar’s thirteenth feature, Brave (Mark Andrews, Brenda Chapman & Steve Purcell, 2012), may not be the best of the studio’s output. While it doesn’t reach the narrative heights of Ratatouille (Brad Bird, 2007), The Incredibles (Bird, 2004), Wall-E (Andrew Stanton, 2008), or Toy Story 3 (Lee Unkrich, 2010), the film certainly doesn’t belong with the drudgery that is Cars (John Lasseter, 2006) or Cars 2 (Lasseter, 2011). Set in medieval Scotland, Brave is a solid piece of Pixar animation and an affecting story that anyone would be proud to produce. Unlike most critics, who have contributed to the film’s middling score on Rotten Tomatoes (it’s middling for a movie by Pixar, whose works are almost always universally praised), I didn’t find Brave disappointing. In fact, it exceeded my expectations. Originally conceived by director Brenda Chapman, Brave is a welcome woman-centric entry into the Pixar canon. But it really should be celebrated for what it gets right: its overwhelmingly feminist story. You know the drill by now: I’m going to spoil the movie below.

During its opening weekend, Brave racked up $147 million in worldwide box office receipts ($66 million of which was gained in the US alone), thereby quelling fears that audiences wouldn’t turn out for the first Pixar movie to have a female protagonist. There is such a thing as brand loyalty, and when the film’s studio is synonymous with quality (in terms of story, characters, and art), who really could have thought that Brave wouldn’t bring audiences in, anyway? Still, it is refreshing to reflect that, provided the little ones weren’t bored with the emotional story, spectators of all ages were treated to a poignant film about mother-daughter relationships. In other words, Brave is not just another fairytale.

The mother-daughter relationships in fairytales historically pit good against evil, generally in the form of a young, beautiful, and sweet-natured “princess” overcoming the emotional and physical torture inflicted upon her by her stepmother. For example, Cinderella’s stepmother punishes her with menial labor around the house because her now deceased husband loved his daughter more than he loved her, and Cinderella is rewarded in the end for her moral goodness when the prince chooses her for his bride and not one of her stepsisters. More tellingly, one of the most enduring fairytales, which is coincidentally the first full-length animated feature (by Pixar’s parent company, Disney, no less), is about a witch’s murderous envy of her stepdaughter’s beauty. According to Maria Tatar, the Grimm brothers’ early version of “Snow White” reflects “children’s fears about the cruelty of stepmothers, at a time when mortality rates for child-bearing women were exceptionally high.” However, Monica Hesse is quick to point out that the original Grimm story was about a mother’s desire to kill her own daughter for the same reason. In this sense, Brave breaks with the fairytale tradition because the generational conflict is about compromise forged out of love.

Princess Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald) and Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson) don’t see eye-to-eye on how the princess should comport herself. The teenaged Merida has taken after her warrior father, the fun-loving and rough-housing King Fergus (Billy Connolly). She prefers to fill the hours horseback riding through the nearby forest, climbing steep rock-faces to enjoy the view from the top, and practicing her already accomplished archery skills. Elinor is trying to make a lady out of her daughter, insisting she perfect her enunciation, needlepoint, and hospitality. Even though Merida is nowhere near ready to assume queenly duties (and nor does she want to), the queen has gone behind her daughter’s back to invite the first-born sons of three neighboring clans to compete in the Highland Games for Merida’s hand in marriage. Merida tries what she can to deter her mother’s plans, even going so far as to compete in—and win—the archery contest for her own hand. Watch this scene and get the chills:

So, Brave is a universal story about wanting to choose your own path in life. Following Merida’s embarrassing commandeering of the Games, mother and daughter get into a heated fight. Unfortunately, I can’t remember who acted first, but I know that Merida takes a knife to Elinor’s tapestry-in-progress, a portrait of the family, separating Elinor from the rest, and Elinor throws Merida’s bow into the fireplace, immediately regretting such an impulsive move. Although Merida’s desires are decidedly different from Ariel’s, the generational conflict in Brave reminds me of the one central to The Little Mermaid (Ron Clements & John Musker, 1989). Merida even enlists the transformative powers of a witch (Julie Walters), only, unlike Ariel, she selfishly wishes to change her mother rather than herself. (Recall how, in striking a deal with Ursula in order to meet and woo a land-bound prince, Ariel gained legs in exchange for her beautiful singing voice.) In Brave, the witch, who so desperately wants to work in peace as a wood-carver (“too many dissatisfied customers”), forgets to give Merida special instructions for serving Elinor the magic cake, and that is when the action really takes off.

The working title of Brave was The Bear and the Bow, and it is a good thing that the filmmakers made the switch. For the title would have given away the narrative twist, which Brave‘s marketing materials have done so well to keep under wraps: consuming Merida’s peace offering, the witch’s cake, transforms Elinor into a bear! A wacky Freaky Friday of sorts ensues with mother and daughter teaming up to reverse the spell while dodging the riotous clansmen in the castle. King Fergus in particular has a bear on his hit list; in the pre-title sequence, set when Merida received her first bow as a little girl, the giant, legendary bear Mor’du attacks the family’s picnic and eats Fergus’s left leg below the knee (off-“camera,” of course).

I’m not sure that the bear carries any special significance in Scottish culture, especially since neither Scotland nor the whole island of Great Britain has been home to wild bears for thousands of years. However, the bear metaphor is apt because we tend to anthropomorphize the wild animal due to the mother bear’s fierce protection of her cubs. Just this week, Good Morning America reported that three bear cubs broke into a car near Denver searching for food, their mother initially scared off by police officers who snapped photos of the bandits red-handed. The only other mention of animals in Brave are of the mythical sort. I can’t recall the exact circumstances, but someone mentions to Fergus the impossible existence of dragons, which I have interpreted to be a slight against How to Train Your Dragon (Chris Sanders & Dean DeBlois, 2010), perhaps the first and only near-Pixar quality DreamWorks Animation film about a viking community that, oddly enough, has a character or two with a Scottish accent.

In any case, Brave has received a lot of attention because animating Merida’s untamed orange curls pixel-by-pixel is an impressive feat. However, just as the filmmakers successfully infused children’s toys with life and a rat with excellent culinary skills, the animators of Brave wonderfully imbue the bear with Elinor’s prim-and-proper personality. We still see Elinor in the bear as she proudly wears her crown and insists that Merida keep her bow off the table. Though they’re both despondent, things calm down between them once the duo have learned, via a potion-controlled automated message from the now-absent witch, that if they do not mend their bond by the second sunrise, Elinor’s metamorphosis will become permanent. Frustrated that she can no longer speak, mother and daughter gradually develop a language based on non-verbal sounds, hand (or paw) gestures, and facial expressions. The first steps toward reconciliation occur on the banks of a river, where Merida teaches her mother how to fish. The irony is not lost on me: a young woman teaches a bear to fish with just its bare claws. Later, when they happen upon Mor’du’s pit and must run away to save themselves from his wrath, Merida rides on her mother bear’s back. Merida’s horse Angus may prove valuable in the end, but this earlier scene is poignant because it shows how connected mother and daughter are, despite (or because of) Elinor’s change.

In fact, one of the aspects I like best about Brave is how active both Merida and Elinor are. Their daring escape from Mor’du’s lair is just the tip of the iceberg. In the end, after Fergus finally discovers the broken furniture in Elinor’s bedroom and attributes the mess to Elinor the bear, believing she is Mor’du and therefore responsible for taking his leg and killing his beloved wife, he locks a protesting Merida in her room and chases Elinor out of the castle. With the manpower of the three visiting clans behind him, Fergus follows Elinor to a mystical Druid circle. Eventually, Merida gets out of her temporary prison, stitching up her mother’s tapestry while bouncing along on Angus’s back. She arrives just in time for the real Mor’du to show up and attack the humans. Fergus withdraws his fight, and everyone watches as Elinor the bear defends Merida, ingeniously wearing down one of the stones so that when Mor’du slams into it, it crushes and kills him. This resolution is satisfying because it defies expectations laid out at the beginning. Not only has the queen come to respect her daughter’s rough-and-tumble talents, she has also exhibited them herself. It is Elinor, after all, a woman bear of action, who defeats her husband’s wild foe—and not Fergus himself who does the deed. It is also important to note that Mor’du isn’t a villain; he is the way he is because he was once a human prince who broke with tradition and sought the witch’s magic in order to rule the kingdom on his own. His curse became permanent because he was too stubborn to right his wrongs. So, when Elinor kills him, his soul gratefully finds peace.

The maternal melodrama reaches its tearful conclusion when Merida, having practiced the womanly needlepoint skills her mother desperately grilled into her, wraps the tapestry around Elinor the bear. With a humble apology and a profession of love, Merida manages to bring back her mother’s human form, just as the sun rises. As much as I like New York magazine’s pop culture blog, Vulture, I am not willing to ignore its faults. Contributor Kyle Buchanan misunderstands a lot about the witch’s spell, believing that she casts it “[j]ust for cruel kicks.” First of all, Merida asks for the witch to “change” her mom, not for one to more accurately change her mother’s mind about her future, so we can hardly blame the witch for Merida’s confusing choice of words. Buchanan also takes the witch’s explanation of the spell’s conditions too literally, incredulous as to how the witch could have known that Elinor’s tapestry needed mending. That’s not actually the case, Kyle. The witch’s “answering service antidote” refers to the mother-daughter bond in a metaphorical way. It is Merida who conjures the idea to stitch the tapestry back together. Just think of how pleasing it would be to her mom!

Originally, I rolled my eyes at the the plot contrivance that the spell’s effects are only temporary for the first two days, but in hindsight I realize that it is enough time for the mother and daughter to reconnect. After all, they used to be close because of their shared belief in magic, and they do know each other very well. Through their adventure, they arrive at a compromise, which technically lies heavily in Merida’s favor. For even before Merida breaks the spell in the Druid circle, the princess’s agility outdoors and heartwarming speech in front of the fighting clansmen who have convened for the Highland Games inspires Elinor, still a bear, to sign the rest of her daughter’s speech, announcing that Queen Elinor has decided to suspend the Games. In witnessing Merida’s full appreciation for tradition, Elinor insists that the three suitors who have competed for her hand, along with everyone else throughout the kingdom, should have the right to choose whomever they want to marry. Talk about a change of heart.

This resolution complements the film’s overarching feminist representation of power. Fergus may be the king of all four clans, which are each headed by men, but it is Elinor who effectively rules. She organizes the Highland Games and arranges Merida’s marriage. When fighting breaks out among the clans upon their arrival, she brings it to an end with a stern turn about the room, silencing even her brawling husband. Most importantly, Queen Elinor stops Merida, who speaks passionately about the importance of tradition, before her daughter chooses who among the sons of Lords Macintosh (Craig Ferguson), MacGuffin (Kevin McKidd), and Dingwall (Robbie Coltrane), will be her husband. In this way, through her influence over her mother, Merida becomes the most powerful DunBroch in the kingdom. In the future, she may remember to keep her bow off the dining room table to please her mother, but she will not have to hang it up completely.

Brave is violent in parts, such as whenever Mor’du appears on-screen. But perhaps more shocking than this is the prevalence of nudity. For example, Merida locks Fergus and his men outside on the tower in order to get Elinor, newly transformed into a bear, out of the castle. The men tie their kilts together and climb down, and as they walk out of the frame, the spectator glimpses their bare asses. Later in the film, after Merida breaks the spell, her mischievous little brothers, the triplets Hamish, Hubert, and Harris, run over to the naked Queen Elinor, their bare asses also visible (they had eaten from the magic cake at one point, too). It is an interesting choice to feature comic nudity in an animated family film. Pixar had never gone this route before. But I am glad that the filmmakers included a sexualized instance of the female gaze. When Lord Dingwall introduces his son before the royal family, a gigantic Schwarzenegger-like figure with bulging muscles and an unreal tan stands in front of them. Elinor leans forward in her throne to watch the expression on Merida’s face as she registers the man’s appearance. It’s not clear whether or not the denouement that he is not Lord Dingwall’s son disappoints either woman, but their looking at his body suggests that the filmmakers have a keen sense of irony when it comes to fairytale desires.

As a lover of all things Scottish, I admit that I was originally trepidatious going in to see Brave because the film circulates many stereotypes, including a mystical highland setting, jokes about kilts (Lord Dingwall moons Lord MacGuffin), and anachronistic blue face paint. In fact, I didn’t even like the title because it resembles too closely Mel Gibson’s rape of Scottish and English history also known as Braveheart (1995). Thankfully, the film is neither Brigadoon (Vincente Minnelli, 1954) nor Braveheart, and these small quibbles do not detract from the emotional pull of the story. In sum, I appreciate that the film reclaims the adjective “brave,” which typically connotes masculine courage, by attaching it to a young woman’s adventure of self-discovery.

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