Disney princesses have a ridiculous tendency to always want “more,” and an annoying tendency to sing about it against luxurious backdrops that illustrate just how much they already have. Sure, the lust for conquest is insatiable, and “the man/woman who has everything” is just a myth, but beginning a tale with the hero entitled to a damned kingdom and driving the plot forward with their desire for more, more, MORE doesn’t exactly read like Oliver Twist. So when Pixar’s latest animated feature and first “Disney Princess” movie opened with a young firebrand royal whose only problem in life is a low tolerance for castle protocol, I was understandably resistant.
What won me over to Brave’s side was that this film, unique amongst all other princess parables – including the recent and insufferable Snow White and the Huntsman – had a keen respect for the whole cast of characters, who are more than cuddly or dastardly plot points to be overcome, and actually exist in a tangible, realistic way. Brave turns the “wicked stepmother” archetype deftly on its head, and not just because the Queen is the hero’s actual birth mom. It’s because the frustrations she causes the heroine stem from an honest to god worldview, developed over a lifetime of complex experiences, and that their interpersonal conflict is just the believable, relatable result of clashing prides and a desire for love on their own terms.
With impressively nuanced performances and a script that caters more towards the characters’ development than the usual arch-villain centric storyline, Brave is nothing short of a wonder. In many respects, it’s one of the most mature animated films to come out of Disney or Pixar in their long, storied careers. But it’s also a little crazy and amounts to a somewhat less than you’d imagine, thanks (SPOILERS AHEAD) to a plot that the trailers and posters are keen to hide from you; possibly because they think you remember Brother Bear, but probably because they assume you don’t.
Yes, after a beautiful opening act in which the tomboyish Princess Merida (voiced by Kelly MacDonald) clashes with her propriety-obsessed mother Elinor (voiced by Emma Thompson), Merida gets so upset and frustrated with her situation that she makes a rash, emotional decision that results – never mind how – in turning her mother into a bear. Yes, a bear. And now that she’s a bear, and not even a talking one, Elinor is forced to live through the rest of the film as a wild animal, gradually discovering the simple joys of a life lived free of social restrictions. Meanwhile, Merida is forced to protect her mother in a way that impresses upon her the value of Elinor’s maternal guidance. The film ends with Merida putting her mother’s tutelage to wise use, and Elinor taking action in a manner that would make her daughter proud.
While Brave has plenty of action, wonderful moments of classic screwball comedy and more than a few easy Scottish jokes (haggis = gross), my favorite scene is an early one. Merida and Elinor have just had an enormous fight. Their clash of wills is so intense that neither can hear what the other is saying, for fear that giving in inch will risk sacrificing a mile. But Merida finally tells her mother everything she feels in a calm, respectful and productive fashion, and Elinor does the same. They abandon their pretense and speak with respect, their true intentions, reservations and affection unmistakable. And yet they’re not talking to each other: Elinor’s play-acting with her husband and Merida’s doing the same with her horse. Brave intercuts between them and beautifully illustrates that their troubles – and indeed, most troubles between loved ones – are easily solved by putting individual hang-ups aside and communicating openly, with reason and affection. That it takes turning into a bear, fighting a cursed prince and many more ridiculous obstacles besides to convince the actual characters of such an elegant truth smartly acknowledges just how difficult the most simple solution to a problem can be.
Brave is not the epic it’s been marketed as. The kingdom doesn’t need to be saved, Merida’s future isn’t entirely secure at the end and really, most of the action could have been performed live on stage, because the drama is just that intimate. It’s a trifle, but it’s a trifle with wild entertainment value and a wise point of view on human relationships. This Disney princess, if you can call her that, doesn’t have to go on a grand adventure… she just needs to grow up, and the parents who stifle her simply need to do the same. Brave is an unexpected treasure, and one of the best “Disney Princess” movies ever made, if only because the filmmakers decided to ignore most of the pap that comes with the genre.