For our Sunday movie night this week, we watched 2012's Brave. I have now, I think, watched all of the Disney Princess films. Did I mention I have no daughters?
Brave is Disney/Pixar's 13th film, set in semi-mythical Scotland. The plot concerns the free-spirited daughter of the king, who would rather ride & shoot than become a lady and get married. She tries to cheat her way out of it via a magical spell, and creates Big Problems. Then she has to find a way to undo what she's done before it costs her more than she thought.
Merida, the oldest child of the king Fergus and his queen Elinor, is a outdoors loving girl who can ride and shoot very well. An archery contest in the opening act shows off Merida's skills, which are of Robin Hood proportions. Seriously, Merida pulls off one of Robin's signature arrow tricks. It is curious to me, then, that after this point her signature abilities play very little part in the plot, and none in the climax. I guess Pixar wanted her to have some ability to demonstrate her competence and independence.
The main conflict of the film is between desire and duty, between mother (duty) and daughter (desire). This is a familiar theme in movies aimed at children, but it is not a theme that draws me in; I'm on the parent's side every time. In this film, the mother, and although he's less directly involved the father also have the clans' traditions on their side. There is no other word than selfishness to describe Merida's attitude. She simply cannot see that the people around her have a legitimate claim on her behavior. She lives in a society, a culture, but initially insists on autonomy – taking the benefits of belonging to a community without bearing any of the responsibility.
Merida does not seem to have a problem with marriage generally; just with being suddenly told that it's going to happen to her. I appreciate that Pixar did not make her a straw feminist whining about being 'some man's property'. Her mother is clearly not dominated by her father, nor is the reverse the case. Fergus and Elinor seem to have a loving marriage, equitably dividing the duties of leadership.
I was glad to see that Merida got to see at least a foretaste of the consequences of her refusal. The heads of all the clans, who are vying to marry their sons to Merida, all get offended and it looks like the kingdom is going to have a 4-way civil war over who gets the right to marry the princess. This is not played as a romantic gesture, this is jealousy and war.
At least there is a mother in this movie, and it seemed from the outset that she and the father were both going to survive the film. This is odd for a Disney film, but that's a discussion for another day. The three young men who are presented as suitors barely come into the story, as the plot revolves around Merida and her mother. Maybe this is why the three are little more than caricatures: a slacker, an Emo and a doofus.
Most of the humor in this film comes from the father, the other adult males and the triplet brothers. I can handle that, it is a film for young people, and kids like seeing adults acting like children. I like Fergus, Merida's father. He's a boisterous bruiser, who also clearly loves his wife and children – and trusts his wife with the formal public speaking. One of the few emotional connections I felt to this film was with Fergus' terrified reaction when he thought his wife had been eaten by a bear.
Taken as a whole, I enjoyed the movie, but it will not be included in my Favorites list. Merida did act bravely once or twice, but I don't think that theme was explored enough to make the title fit. Merida was not introduced as a fearful child (beyond what would be normal in the flashback scenes where she very young) so she had no cause to prove that she is brave. She screamed like a girl (well, that would make sense) when confronted with the villain of the film, and ran away the first time, and was saved by her parents the second time. Hardly an exemplar of bravery. I also don't think she really changed her mind about accepting responsibility and growing up. The film concludes with Merida still unmarried and having fun like she was at the beginning.
The scary scenes in this film were not scary enough to seriously undermine my kid's enjoyment of the film. There is a bit of rude humor on the fact that the Scots wore no underclothes under their kilts. No private parts are seen, but a well-endowed serving woman has things dropped onto and into her bosom for comic effect. Magic is employed, but the magic user is not the villain, rather a disinterested party who performs for a fee. None of this bothers me, but the body part humor is not my style. The film is up to Pixar's standard for color, texture and visual appeal, even though much of the film happens at night, or in darkened interiors.