‘Brave” is the impetuous, irreverent new child to come out of the Pixar kingdom, and it is unlike previous Pixar movies for the following reasons. 1) The main character is a human teenage girl. 2) The whole thing is set in medieval Scotland and not some unspecified U.S. suburbia. 3) It explores the mother-daughter relationship extensively and is in fact a very feminine (and often feminist) story.
The lead is a princess named Merida (voiced by Kelly McDonald, or by AKB48 member Yuko Oshima in the Japanese dub), and she is the first ever female heroine in a Pixar film. The filmmakers (directors Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman, and codirector Steve Purcell) have fashioned her into a feisty, fearless teen with a mind of her own. Her other distinctive trait is a splendid mane of red hair that’s packed around her head and explodes over her shoulders in a mass of unruly curls. Merchandise alert! I foresee endless rows of curly redhead wigs displayed in Disney Stores around the globe.
Set in a medieval Scotland where different clans rule their territories and forge political ties by marrying off their offspring, “Brave” wastes no time in presenting Merida with a giant dilemma: How can a princess be true to herself, honor her parents and keep her kingdom peaceful all at once?
You see, Merida has been raised by her wild, bear-fighting dad, King Fergus (Billy Connolly), to be an ace archer and horseback rider. She has also been taught by her ladylike mum, Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson), to be smart and outspoken. All good things, and Merida has enjoyed plenty of freedom and fun in her young life.
But when Elinor insists that Merida must now face her royal responsibilities by choosing a husband from among three suitors (dithering sons of neighboring clan leaders), Merida is floored. She says all the things that irate teenage daughters have flung at their mothers through the ages (“I hate you!”) and tears out of the castle in a major adolescent huff. Elinor shakes her head sadly. Where oh where did she go wrong?
As a Pixar production, “Brave” is perhaps lacking in the usual abundance of wit and wisecracks, but in its place is a reservoir of insight into the mother-daughter dynamic. Twentieth-century feminist Simone de Beauvoir wrote in her memoirs that no discussion of feminism is complete without a discussion of the particular effect mothers have on their female offspring; apparently she herself suffered plenty at the hands of her domineering mom. The famed feminist was especially enraged by her two-tiered upbringing: Until a certain age, she had been taught to think and act like a boy, and allowed the same kind of liberties. Then as soon as she reached pubescence, her mother got on her case to obey social conventions and make herself pretty in order to attract a proper husband.
The same kind of fate assails Merida. Running around in the woods at will, she had always felt secure in the knowledge that the future was her own to carve out or conquer. But with prospect of a political marriage on the near horizon, her world is shattered.
Merida tells her mother that if this is growing up she wants no part of it, and in that instant she’s voicing the unspoken fear and conviction felt by most women when they’re on the brink of maturity. It boils down to this: Female adulthood with its tainted tint of sex, social mores and interdependence, looks pretty shabby when compared with the child/teen privileges of rebellion and adventure. If only we could go on slinging bows and arrows and galloping through the woods, forever.
In her best moments, Merida comes off like a red-haired female Huckleberry Finn, or the tomboy Viola of Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” — and the vulnerability that surfaces just below her facade of bravado is touching. Elinor knows how fragile and fleeting this time can be and how, when it’s over, even the most committed tomboy must come down from the magic tree, change into a dress and, as de Beauvoir so succinctly put it, “become a woman.”
Speaking of magic, you’ll be relieved to know that “Brave” isn’t a feminist treatise but a genuine Pixar production (with a clear influence from the classics of parent company Disney), heavy on stunning visuals and presenting magic as a pivotal theme. Merida runs away from Mom to encounter a witch (Julie Walters) in the woods, who presents her with an enchanted McGuffin. “Be careful what you wish for,” her mother had always warned her, but Merida realizes the truth of these words too late. And then it’s up to her to undo the catastrophe that befalls her mum, dad and the kingdom, a task that calls for a larger store of courage than Merida has ever had to muster.
Since time immemorial, mothers have wrung their hands over the obstinate nature of their adolescent daughters. The same daughters, though, could also be capable of incredible loyalty and a fierce, abiding love for their parents. Will Merida be one of them? The clue is in the title.