Each week in The Moviegoer, Nick Olson examines new and upcoming films.
During the first act of Pixar’s new film Brave, young Princess Merida shrieks defiantly at her mother, “I want my freedom!” And, to some degree, her youthful, bold resistance is understandable. As is customary for the Scottish kingdom of DunBroch, the Princess must marry one of the three lords’ firstborn sons. Determined to refuse any forced betrothal and pursue what she wants (marriage or otherwise), Merida decides to have the three men compete in an archery challenge to gain her hand. After the suitors get their shot, Merida — the firstborn of DunBroch — wins her own hand, much to the chagrin of her propriety-loving mother. Most influenced by her father, King Fergus, Merida is more interested in weaponry, exploration, and horseback riding than with what is deemed lady-like behavior in her particular milieu. Yet, this isn’t the third act, but the first (it’s the film’s trailer, even).
Given Pixar’s advertising campaign for Brave (and yes I, too, consider it unfortunate that we lost the original title, The Bear and the Bow), you’d think that this film, featuring Pixar’s first heroine, was prepared to deliver the conventional modern heroine narrative: girl triumphs over patriarchal norms and, at the highest point of resolution, realizes her autonomous agency. And, presumably, she lives happily ever after pursuing what made the men so damned happy, i.e., the delusional void of freedom without substantive content (the epilogue we rarely see, though Peggy Olson of Mad Men comes to mind). But Brave has a different story to tell.
The film’s central conflict is essentially a mother/daughter problem. Queen Elinor expects her daughter to conform perfectly to the cultural expectations of a princess, but she often does so in such a way that discourages her child. And Merida gives little thought to respecting or obeying her mother: her disregard for her mother’s advice pushes Elinor to be especially insistent. It’s a vicious cycle that Merida becomes determined to manipulate to her advantage. So in response to her mother’s behest, but also to her mother’s concern, Merida tearfully rides away on her horse after the archery/suitor incident. To give away what happens next would be to give away too much, but suffice to say, there are subtle hints in the first act that Merida does not just desire to marry on her own terms, but ultimately desires to do what she wants to do. The problem is that she doesn’t understand what the pursuit of selfish freedom may cost others, but she soon finds out the hard way.
Avoid spoilers heading into the film, because this fairy tale has a few pleasantly surprising narrative turns. Visually, Brave is one of my favorite Pixar films to date. DunBroch — with its majestic castle, enchanted forest, and nostalgia-infused medieval culture — evokes the kind of imaginative marvel we’ve come to expect from the studio. The film consistently inspired momentary gasps of enjoyment at the sight of its resplendent world.
But if genuine narrative surprise and visual achievement work in the film’s favor, there are two qualms I have with Brave. First, I wanted Merida’s radiant red hair to have more significance than it did. In the midst of a visually crisp film, it was the young heroine’s hair which perhaps stood out most, but it seemed as if it should have carried as much weight as Cyril’s red apparel in The Kid with a Bike. I suppose her spirally red hair is a complement to her spirited demeanor, but it felt like a missed opportunity for something more.
The second qualm warrants a bit more attention. Over at 1 More Film Blog, Kenneth R. Morefield — who notes from the get-go that Brave is “not a bad movie” — raises some noteworthy problems with how Brave sets up its central conflict in relation to how it treats the arranged marriage. There’s some debate as to whether the third act is satisfying because Morefield and others contend that too much unnecessary blame is placed on Merida — that her actions are more understandable than blame-worthy, and that her unjust situation in the first act warrants her ornery behavior. While I’m more inclined to see the film’s conclusion as fitting (and while I think it unfair to compare Brave’s narrative issues with the convoluted Prometheus), I do understand why he takes issue with the film’s narrative. My initial thought after a single viewing was that it could have better established some of its thematic distinctions (i.e.: where Elinor was in the wrong and where Merida was in the wrong) with its narrative action, and it could have been less reliant on obviously-delivered dialogue.
But a few points in the film make its plot defensible on the whole. First, even if Merida’s situation in the beginning of the film is unfair, it seems well-established that Merida is especially consumed with the desire to rule herself in a way that is likely to be problematic for others, including her family and her kingdom. She seems to desire not just more freedom, but the freedom without responsibility to anything higher than herself. The unwieldy nature of her desire is perhaps most manifested when she says that she’d “rather die” than be like her mother, who, though flawed, has loved her daughter, family, and kingdom well (and, perhaps, her problematic desire is also manifest when she slices a rip in a family tapestry).
I won’t say who asks Merida the question, but it’s a pointed one: “Are you sure you know what you’re doing?” And the answer is fairly obvious that, even if Merida is right to desire more personal choices, she’s oblivious to her own ignorance and need for the wisdom of others. Further, the film clearly finds fault with how Elinor handles the situation. Without divulging anything, the main narrative turn, beginning when Merida enters the forest, becomes a two-sided conundrum of lesson-learning for both her and her mother. And the resolution is one in which they both become better listeners. And even if you’re apt to view the potential arranged betrothal through the shocked eyes of a tsk’ing modern (hard for us not to), I’ll ease your concern by revealing that the third act doesn’t feature a marriage.
Finally, as far as the man/woman and patriarchy/autonomy distinctions are concerned, it’s noteworthy that one of the kingdom’s legends is that a powerful lord (a man) caused his kingdom to fall because he wanted to rule for himself. And it’s also worth mentioning that in DunBroch’s patriarchal kingdom, Queen Elinor seems to have the most power of persuasion of anyone. Merida’s struggle is not with her father, who she gets along with quite well, but with her mother. It’s more evident that Merida is less desirous of her father’s power and more desirous of her mother’s, who often exercises it in a fault-worthy manner. Thus, what is clear in the film is that Merida’s fault is not in her desire to be who she is, but in her desire to do whatever she wants above all else — and this is a human problem in the film, not a girl problem.
Thus, what makes Brave thematically satisfying is that it ultimately supports Merida’s quest for individuation, while also warning against desire for the kind of freedom which would promote self over others. It’s a credit to the film that it affirms Merida’s quest to find her “true self” and to “follow her heart” while also suggesting that the true self ought to be shaped by love’s demands, and that following one’s heart involves an exterior form of revelation. It’s said early in the film and then reiterated for its timely importance to a particular scene that “legends are lessons that ring with truth.” This legend suggests that each member of a family must be wary of various forms of pride — whether that which is produced by tradition or self. Whether one is a man or a woman, freedom-unto-selfishness has beastly consequences for self and others. And, thus, sometimes the greatest act of bravery is the humility behind a penitent attitude — that kind of self-rule which is characterized by loving restraint.