Brave: Pixar Finds Magic in a Mother-Daughter Relationship
Brave seems on the surface to be riddled with the standard clichés of Disney films—- a kingdom, a princess, wanting to marry for love instead of duty, a witch throwing a wrench in the works, cute mischievous sidekicks, etc. However, Brave is the only animated feature I can recall about a mother/daughter relationship, making it an invaluable entry into the Pixar oeuvre. People tend to carry heightened expectations about a Pixar film, since their percentage of great films is the highest of any movie studio in the history of cinema. I’m no exception—anything less than a four-star classic feels like a bit of a letdown. Brave isn’t a four-star classic, as its plot restricts it from ever reaching that transcendent state the best Pixar films put an audience in. However, if Pixar usually hits home runs, this is a standing triple, a movie with a distinct world full of heart that will surely tug the heartstrings of any mother or daughter in the crowd, who will recognize their own conflicts in what the characters face.
Merida (Kelly MacDonald) is a princess with a problem. She longs for freedom, but she has royal obligations. Her father (Billy Connolly) is the king, and her mother (Emma Thompson) is constantly on her back about behaving more like a princess and less like an angsty teen. When the leaders of the three neighboring kingdoms bring their sons to compete for Merida’s hand, Merida finds a witch (Julie Walters) with a simple request: change her mom, so that her fate can also be changed. When she finds that he request comes with caveats (don’t people know that about witch’s spells by now?), it complicates her life dramatically. When she finds her three little brothers have also been changed, it complicates matters further. And when the evil bear who bit off her father’s leg re-enters their lives… well, you get the idea. Obstacles must be overcome, the greatest of all being the rift that has grown between a teenage girl and her mom.
It’s puzzling that reviews have focused on the clichéd elements of the plot and totally missed what made the film feel so fresh: the depiction of an honest-to-God mother-daughter relationship. Having worked with teenagers for years, I’ve yet to meet a single girl who got along with their mother every day of their adolescent lives. Usually there’s a great sense of rebellion and desire to live your own way fighting tooth and nail against the mother’s sense of societal obligation and familial responsibility. Merida, like many teenage daughters, is a daddy’s girl. She doesn’t blame her father for her position in life since he’s not behaving as an enforcer the way her mother is. Their journey towards mutual understanding is unlike anything I’ve seen depicted in a Disney film– why is that? With all of the girls idolizing princesses, why has there never been a girl character interested in something other than pleasing her parents and marrying a hot guy?
I was left wanting by the plot. There’s no antagonist, strictly speaking, and there’s certainly no memorable villain other than the ticking clock (there’s a time limit until the spell turns permanent, of course). There’s also no real sense of climbing action; it’s a character study animated film. Not a real problem, per se, as watching the characters grow and change is still a pleasure, but it prevents the film from building to the blissful highs that we’ve come to expect from the Pixar crew’s story arcs. Woody’s match blowing out, Dory’s “I’m home” speech, Mike and Sully getting abandoned in the Arctic, Wall-E and Eve dancing in space—these memorable moments of heartbreak and uplift simply aren’t possible in a story like this. Brave toys with this when the mother and daughter are learning from each other (in particular, a fishing scene with one of the movie’s lovely songs accompanying the action seized my emotions), but can’t ever quite maintain its hold on the hearts of the entire audience. Still, I fully endorse Brave for what it accomplishes. Unlike other animated films, it doesn’t show girls what they should want to be– it shows them for what they are and reassures them that it’s okay. That’s a brave mission, indeed.