Disney's "Brave": Not for the Faint of Heart

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The highly anticipated Brave arrived in theatres Friday. I was anxious to see what Pixar achieved with its first female protagonist so I snuck out for a matinée sans children. Having read on Common Sense Media that there were “a couple of scary sequences involving a large angry bear,” I also wanted to preview the film before letting my five-year-old son see it.

(There are spoilers here, so if you plan to see the film, you might want to stop reading.)

The film is based on a familiar plot line that never seems to get old, no many how ways it is told—conflict between generations. Queen Elinor is frustrated with her daughter, the princess Merida, who is anything but princess-like in her behaviour. Merida prefers riding her horse and taking target practice with her bow and arrow to lessons in music and diction. She eats with gusto and regularly puts her bow on the dinner table, much to the chagrin of her mother.

The conflict is set up nicely, and comes to a head when Merida finds out her mother has invited three suitors to the castle to seek her hand in marriage. Merida stands up for herself and, in dramatic fashion, announces that she will decide her own fate. After a fight with her mother in which some very harsh words are said, Merida follows some will-of-the-wisps to a witch’s hut and asks for a spell to “change” her mother. She has no idea what that change will be and is shocked when her mother is turned into a bear—creatures detested by her father since he lost a leg in a battle with a monstrous bear named Mor’du.

Merida is a great character. Unlike many of her princess counterparts from other animated films, she is completely un-sexualized. She is strong, smart, and, yes, brave. Her mother is equally strong in her insistence that Merida be a “real” princess. (While children might not get the significance, there is a brilliant scene in which Elinor ties Merida’s corset strings. Merida complains she can’t breathe—a perfect metaphor for the suffocating and constricting roles into which females were forced in those days.) Merida is not without her flaws, a nice change from the exceedingly virtuous princesses that often appear in movies. She loses her temper in a scene with her mother and refuses to accept responsibility for the witch’s curse, blaming the witch for taking it to extremes instead of blaming herself for seeking out the spell in the first place. This being a children’s movie, she learns lessons in appreciation and acknowledges her deep love for her mother in the film’s conclusion.

Once Elinor is transformed into a bear (a somewhat frightening scene) Merida helps her escape before she is hunted down by the king and the visiting suitors’ families.

The storyline between Merida and Elinor will likely seem predictable to adults, but there are some touching scenes. Even though Elinor-as-bear cannot talk, it is clear that she and Merida are repairing their relationship while they hide in the woods. They eventually return to the castle and share a lovely scene in which Elinor manages to communicate with her daughter who, as an articulate and outspoken girl, is brokering a peace between the brawling suitors’ families while also asking for a change in attitude toward marriage. It turns out that her suitors feel the same way as Merida, wanting to marry for love, not family obligations.

So what about the males? They are mostly caricatures. King Fergus is mostly a decent father—he shows affection to his sons, gives Merida her first bow and arrow, and defends his daughter’s right to “fight,” saying, “Princess or not, learning to fight is essential” (or words to that effect). But when the rival suitors and their retinues end up in a brawl, he proves ineffective in breaking it up and joins in. It falls to Elinor to restore order. (It should also be noted that Fergus turns rather violent in his pursuit of the bears and even shoves Merida out of the way in the climactic scene.) Merida’s younger brothers—triplets—are expert brats who, according to Merida, never get into trouble, although they end up helping her in the end.

As Ms. Magazine pointed out in its review, the three suitors provide some commentary on prevailing notions of masculinity, saying that “men are shown as adopting various masculine tropes as they try to out-macho one another to win Merida’s hand.” Definitely true, although I’m not sure young kids would get the satire.

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