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The Surprising Appeal of Brave

July 30th, 2012     by Manisha Aggarwal-Schifellite     Comments

Much was made of Pixar’s latest release, Brave, before and after its premiere, for a number of different reasons. Prior to the film’s release, viewers knew that this would be Pixar’s first animated film to feature a female protagonist (a slightly embarrassing admission considering how many great films have come out of that studio), and also the first film to really master the animation of human hair. After the film’s premiere, many critics complained that the film was “uninspired” and “conventional”. While I agree that some aspects of the story were not exactly groundbreaking (spells, witches, marriage issues), and the Scottish history may have been a bit murky, Brave is actually more innovative than some of Pixar’s earlier releases, just not in the way that many were expecting it to be.

One of the most unconventional things about <em>Brave</em> is that, at its heart, it is a story about a mother-daughter relationship. In the film, Scottish princess Merida, unwilling to accept an arranged marriage, asks a witch to "change her mother." The witch complies, the spell backfires, and Merida and her mother Elinor must work together to undo the damage. On the surface, this doesn't seem particularly inventive. But despite the simplicity of the premise, the narrative of a complex parent-child relationship is rarely given the opportunity to be displayed at the front and centre of any film, let alone a film for young people. In <em>Brave</em>, we see a rare thing: parents and children negotiating their relationships with one another in ways that do not reduce them to caricatures like the rebellious daughter, the shrewish mother, the kind and unconditionally accepting father. Most recently (with the absence of a father figure) we see this happen in <em>Tangled</em>, which promised a girl-power protagonist whose mother is determined to stifle her spirit for her own selfish ends. In Pixar movies, the presence of parents is often minimal--the (male) heroes of <em>Toy Story, Cars, A Bug's Life, Up</em>, and <em>Ratatouille</em> have mentors and friends instead of parents, and in the case of <em>Toy Story</em>, Andy's parents are only visible as voices that implore him to get rid of the things he loves so dearly. <em>Finding Nemo</em> and <em>The Incredibles </em>involve parent-child relationships, but at their cores they are stories about fathers--Marlin the clownfish learns to let his son live his own life as he journeys across the ocean to protect him, and Bob Parr/Mr. Incredible learns to accept success as a family man instead of being a macho superhero. 

On the other side of the Disney/Pixar relationship, Disney films feature female protagonists, but their stories often begin with the death or absence of a mother. As a result, the story then revolves around a positive relationship with a father or boyfriend, and a negative one with a (usually) female enemy like a wicked stepmother or an evil witch. Brave offers a distinct departure from this familiar trope. As Slate critic Dana Stevens wrote, “Elinor is shown shouting at Merida, ignoring her wishes, and then withdrawing when her daughter’s reaction hurts her feelings: In short, behaving like the frustrated mother of a rebellious teenager. It’s a characterization that’s almost shockingly complex for a movie of this type.” Elinor is not merely a traditional mother hell-bent on grooming her daughter for marriage, regardless of her daughter’s wishes. Nor is she an angelic figure like the dead mothers of Disney films past. Instead she is a product of her own generation (in which arranged marriage was the norm), but not such a caricature that she is not willing to literally fight to the death for her child despite their disagreements. The presence of a mother figure like this one was completely unexpected and transformed the film into something much more than a traditional Disney tale. In those stories, we see a man step in as a comfort to a feisty girl whose mother doesn’t understand her (see: Tangled, Mulan). The fighting, truces, and teamwork between mother and daughter are very powerful in Brave, and showcase an intimate, frustrating, and ultimately respectful relationship that so many women know all too well. As I left the theatre, I heard more than one woman remark that Brave story creator Brenda Chapman “just gets it.” Or in the more eloquent words of Lili Loofbourow, “Chapman tacitly refutes our contemporary understanding of the fairy tale as a charming morality play more or less stripped of ambiguity,” in her approach to the story.

Instead of a story about men, or male fish, or male cars, or male monsters, Brave viewers are given a story about multifaceted women and oafish men who have little to no place in the primary plot. In fact, Slate’s Dan Kois discusses this in his Slate Spoiler talk with Stevens, in which he laments the “little things” that Pixar movies do to keep adult viewers interested–details in the corner of the screen, Randy Newman songs, adult-level emotions–that he says are missing in Brave. It’s true that Brave doesn’t represent the recurring themes of Pixar’s canon, but as Kois goes on to say, it is more likely that children will remember it as an integral part of their childhood pop culture experiences.

This might be where the communication breakdown occurs between the disapproving adult critics (who appear to be mostly male) and Brave. Unlike Pixar’s earlier efforts, this movie wasn’t made for young-at-heart dads who look forward to Pixar releases with more excitement than their children. Considering that Pixar’s brand of animation often caters to this demographic, it can be jarring when a Pixar story doesn’t fall comfortably into the pattern so expertly executed by studio heavyweights like Brad Bird and John Lasseter. The resistance to this change can be seen in many of Brave’s reviews, including this one by L.A. Times critic Kenneth Turan: “Merida makes a public nuisance of herself and then flees to the forest in a funk.” This characterization of Merida as a bratty teenager who overreacts to her situation speaks to the unwillingness of some male viewers to accept that this story may not be about them. And this attitude appears at all levels, including the high offices of Pixar. In his feature on the studio from March 2012, Time magazine columnist Joel Stein quotes Brave production designer Steven Pilcher saying: “Brenda was telling me about it, and my eyes glazed over. Princess, king, mother-daughter, ancient kingdom–all words I didn’t like to think about.”

Brave’s biggest accomplishments lie in the mother-daughter/princess storyline because it is not about a princess who inexplicably falls in love with a prince, but instead makes her existing relationships stronger in a realistic way. Maybe the success of Brave among its supposed target audience (children) will encourage Pixar execs to explore the stories of women and girls with less resistance than they have in the past. As NPR’s Linda Holmes reminds us, Pixar could stand to “find a place for a girl not born into royalty (and it’s fine if she’s a robot or a bug or a car or a pork chop, by the way),” and embracing the innovative and touching story of Brave as an integral part of the Pixar canon is definitely a step in that direction.

Tags: arts, gender, media savvy

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