The ideal of the Disney Princess has evolved over the years. While in early years they may have reflected a view of womanhood that does not quite jibe with the modern world, in recent years the new Princesses (such as Mulan and Pocohantas) have been much stronger in terms of personal skills and resourcefulness. Now with Brave, Disney-Pixar gives us a whole new take on Princesshood. Early on, Merida (the princess in question) notes that she doesn’t much care for being a princess. There are too many dos and don’ts. She has her own life she wants to live. To be precise, she is a rebellious teen.
Merida is a bit on the tomboy side. She is a skilled archer. She loves riding through the countryside, shooting arrows into targets as she goes. Her mother, Queen Elinor, has other visions of how a princess should behave. She is constantly making Merida act properly and learn skills that Merida sees no use in. King Fergus is a mighty warrior (who lost his leg to a monstrous bear), but doesn’t seem all that bright. He delights in Merida’s energy and prowess, as if she were a son.
The time has come for Merida to become betrothed to one of the sons of the Lords of the kingdom. There has been a time of peace between the various lords, but there is rivalry just under the surface. Peace will only be maintained if Merida marries one of the first-born sons. Which of the sons it will be will be determined by a contest. Merida hatches a scheme. She picks archery as the contest, and after the three sons do their best, Merida (also a first-born) outdoes them in an attempt to win her own hand. This breach of tradition starts the lords into fighting one another. Merida rides off into the forest, where she finds a witch that gives her a spell that can change her destiny. Of course, as with all such spells, the Law of Unexpected Consequences is part of the deal. It ends up… well, that would be a spoiler, so I’ll leave it at that. In time Merida, to restore peace to the kingdom and to restore something even more precious, must step up and use all those skills her mother has been trying to instill in her. In that she begins to move towards maturity, and takes hold of her destiny, Brave can be seen as a coming-of-age story.
Merida is much closer to the heroines in Studio Ghibli films (such as Spirited Away or The Secret World of Arrietty) than she is to the classic Disney Princesses such as Aurora or Cinderella. I know that Studio Ghibli (especially director Hayao Miyazaki) is held in high regard by many at Disney and Pixar, so it shouldn’t be surprising to see an influence coming into these studios, although the deep connection with nature (a hallmark of Studio Ghibli) is less pronounced here. In Brave, the connection with nature is more a tool to move Merida towards her destiny or to make use of special effects.
While the film doesn’t quite have the Pixar magic we have come to expect, it still is a quality film. The middle part of the film (the part I won’t talk about) makes good use of humor as we see the interaction between Merida and Elinor in very trying circumstances. As a coming-of-age story, Brave serves to define maturity through responsibility—the quality that is at Elinor’s core and that Merida must discover in herself. While Merida yearns for freedom (as all teens do) to be truly grown up she must set that freedom in a larger context than her own whims.
Merida certainly doesn’t fit the typical mold as a Disney Princess. In fact, she seems to be looking for a way to be liberated from that role. The film comes within a hair’s breadth of rejecting the whole Princess ideal, but in its own way redefines that ideal. The traditional roles for girls and women are changing. It’s nice to see that reflected in this story of finding one’s self and remaining true to expectations.
By the way, the short that accompanies Brave is La Luna, a delightful animation that was nominated for an Academy Award last year. It is also a coming-of-age tale. A young boy goes out on his first night with his father and grandfather in the family business. A beautiful little visual fable.