While Pixar is known for its emotional depth and memorable characters, it has been sorely lacking in female protagonists. There are certainly a few interesting female characters, but they are always in the shadows of their male counterparts.
As with most Princess Reviews, the details of the plot are important for a full analysis. That means there are massive spoilers for Brave below the jump, so read on at your own risk.
Merida is the first-born daughter of the DunBroch clan. Her father, King Fergus, rules over the three neighboring clans, MacGuffin, Macintosh, and Dingwall. Fergus is a huge man and a fierce warrior, and proudly displays the leg he lost defending his family against the enormous demon bear Mor'du. His warlike tendencies aren't exactly useful for ruling a kingdom, so most of the daily decisions and diplomacy fall on his wife, Queen Elinor.
As the oldest daughter in a monarchical society, Merida must marry the eldest son of one of the clans her father rules. Elinor tries desperately to raise her as a proper lady, but while Merida has her mother's wits, she has the aggression and free spirit of her father. She makes it clear that she prefers feasting, horse-riding, and archery to reciting poetry or looking dainty.
When her three suitors arrive to compete for her hand, Merida grows desperate. Stuffed into a tight dress and propped into a corner, she finds a loophole that allows her to choose her own hand, a trait very useful in marriage. This isn't exactly a diplomatic move, and Elinor thoroughly chews out her daughter before going to smooth things out. In retaliation, Merida slashes an intricate tapestry her mother made, and Elinor tosses Merida's bow in the fire. It is a very mature moment for everyone.
Merida runs off to the forest to blow off some steam and finds a will o' the wisp creepily beckoning her to the scarier-looking trees. Following the wisp, she finds a little old witch in a house full of bear carvings. She asks the witch for a spell to change her mother (and thus her fate to marry for politics), and the witch hands her one in the form of a little pie, with a warning that previous customers were not entirely satisfied.
Merida arrives home and hands the pie to Elinor, who takes one bite and immediately gets sick. Merida leads her mother to her bedroom, asking incessantly about whether or not she still has to get married. Her inquiries only stop when Elinor falls to the ground moaning and then turns into a bear.
Fearing for her mother's life in the fear of King Fergus' bear bloodlust, Merida smuggles Elinor out of the castle and back to the witch's castle. The witch is gone, but she left a note mentioning that the spell would be permanent in two days unless Merida can realize she's been a massive brat.
Merida and Elinor camp out in the woods and enjoy a good ol' fishing trip bond, where it becomes apparent that Elinor is mentally becoming more bear-like. Merida realizes that she has to mend the tapestry to fix her mother, and the two rush back to the castle.
In order to distract the nobles in the castle and get her mother upstairs, Merida tries to announce her decision to marry. Elinor tells her to announce instead that she will be breaking tradition and marrying when she is well ready for it. They get to the tapestry, but Elinor is chased out of the castle before they can mend it. Merida finishes the tapestry on horseback and throws it over her mother just as the sun rises, restoring her humanity and leaving them with a deeper understanding of one another.
In the beginning, Merida is at that point in her teens where, while she knows deep down that her mother really does want the best for her, the overwhelming unfairness of her whole situation keeps her from thinking rationally, instead lashing out at her mother in an attempt to gain some sort of control over her tumultuous emotions. Over the course of the story, she reaches that point in your teens where you realize what an ass you've been to your parents and how much they've done for you, and just as she does, she faces losing her mother forever.
Of course, I doubt any of the young girls watching Brave will get the full implication of this, since the idea of being friends with your mother isn't really plausible until you've matured enough not to be a little jerk all the time. Because of that, they probably won't cry profusely at the end, but they will hopefully get the message that Mom really does love them and doesn't do things to hurt them.
I also happen to be posting this on my mother's birthday, so here's to you, Mom! Please don't turn into a bear.
The difference between Merida and most of the other princesses is that she knows how young she is and wants to remain that way. Real princesses have to deal with the stress of partially ruling a kingdom, and have to take enormous responsibility with their personal lives. They will have the same job forever, and messing up will mean much more than just getting fired. They also have to worry about passing on their lineage, so whether they like it or not, they're going to be having more than a few children.
Merida knows all of this full well. Like many of the other princesses, she has a melodramatic teenage reaction to the things in her life, but it works in this case. Other princesses throw tantrums because they're not viewed as adults, and Merida throws them to prove otherwise.
Interestingly, while most princesses are defined by how much everyone loved them, nobody really seems to like Merida. Her family certainly loves her despite their frustration with her actions, but the townspeople all frown when she passes and the potential suitors seem pretty put-off when they realize what she's really like. Merida's only real friend is her horse, and even he smacks her in the face. It's a fair message to girls that caring only for yourself won't win you any friends.
While Merida's spell doesn't have the intended effect, and it takes coming to a mutual understanding to change Elinor's mind as well as Merida's, Merida does eventually get what she wants. Brave is not the most subtle of Pixar movies, but to a young audience, this still may not be completely clear.
This is only a slight worry, however, especially in light of the atrocity of the messages in other princess movies. Beauty and the Beast's messages of changing the one you love absolutely ruined the movie in the sense of morality, portraying an abusive relationship as something easily changeable, but Brave's messages are far less damaging. Both Merida and Elinor change naturally, and hopefully it will be clear to young girls that it is one's behavior that changes others, not magic.
Brave does not end in marriage. Hell, Brave does not end in dating. While Merida does meet her potential suitors, and does show some slight interest, her casual interest is not pushed for the sake of giving her a fairy tale ending. Merida is not ready for a relationship, and she sticks with that. She does mature enough to know that one day she'll have to take the plunge, and she's open to the idea, but for now, her family is what matters.
The amount of products aimed at girls with a focus on marriage is disturbing, and it's refreshing to see a movie that shows that marriage is a pretty big deal and shouldn't be treated lightly.
Aside from some slight clarity issues, Brave is an absolutely wonderful influence for young girls. Encouraging friendly behavior and familial love while discouraging early marriage and quick fixes to tough problems? Brilliant. The fact that it highlights athleticism only adds bonus points, because archery is a lot of fun.
Previous Princess Reviews:
Snow White and the Seven Dwarves
The Little Mermaid
Beauty and the Beast
The Swan Princess
The Princess and the Frog
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