Brave Part II: Story and Theme

This is the second part of my random thoughts on Pixar’s Brave. Please read Part 1 first; it talks more about the art and character of the film. This half will look a little deeper into the story.

Brave vs. Tangled
Story-wise, Brave is much more similar to Disney’s 2011 film Tangled, since the prevailing conflict of each film is a strong-willed princess daughter rebelling against a mean ol’ (step)mother’s rules while being personally conflicted about their relationship. Axe-wielding ruffians, magic, and big hair are tangentially involved in both films.

Rapunzel and Merida

There are some major differences, though. In Tangled, Rapunzel’s mother figure is a kidnapper, which means that the audience can overlook any disobedience. It’s a clever trick of the writers, but Rapunzel doesn’t know this, so she’s being genuinely defiant to someone who she thinks is loving and trustworthy. When she runs away from home a happy adventure ensues, wonderful things happen to her, and everybody’s life gets better (except for her stepmother’s life, which gets shorter). It’s kind of a problematic message for kids, when you think about it.

However, a lot of Christian reviewers disagreed. The colors and music and story and cuteness were so appealing that it was easy to make excuses for the problems of story… and worse, the moral problems of the characters. There was a lot of arguing between the various pundits who identified with Rapunzel’s character or situation and those who found the plot and theme disturbing.

Ultimately, of course, everyone would agree that rebellion per se is bad, but the complicated situational ethics of the movie confused people who should have known better. Don’t believe me? A lot of the same reviewers who had nothing but glowing praise for the messages of Tangled are deeply uncomfortable with the exact same messages that they see in Brave.

For example, the same reviewer that praised the “sacramental quality” of the magic in Tangled warned of the “strong occult content” in Brave. The magic is sparkly and gold in one, and smoky and blue in the other, but they should be equally antithetical to a Christian observer. I think the real difference is that one magical tool is sunny and flowery, and the other requires the stereotypical newt-and-frog cauldron process.

To be honest, I too walked out of Tangled liking it, and it was only on reflection that I started to realize that I was excusing serious problems because of all the fluffy fun of it. Brave was different in that it made me uncomfortable right away, and it’s easy to see why. A lot of reviewers fell for the aggressively saccharine treatment of Rapunzel’s story, and her manic pixie dream girl perkiness, and the charming love-at-first sight lantern-lit romanticality. It never makes us feel bad because the characters that we like don’t suffer any consequences for anything. Who doesn’t want to live in that world?

Three Tangled Posters

Brave’s characters have to deal with consequences. Big ones. There aren’t any loopholes for Merida’s attitude, nothing that will let her off the hook that her actions have hung her on. She is selfish child who wants to shirk her responsibilities as a future queen, and ride and shoot all day. She fights and snarls at her mother, who honestly loves and cares for her. She sullenly buys a cursed pastry from a witch and slyly tricks her mother into eating it. The next thing she knows, her grief-stricken father is hunting down her panicking bear-mother, and Merida can no longer pretend that this disaster isn’t her fault.

Smoky blue magic aside, Merida’s world is far more realistic than Rapunzel’s. Brave makes Tangled look like a Barbie doll commercial. Because of these seemingly harsh realities, most reviewers, especially Christians, seem uncomfortable recommending it for kids, but I think that children should learn that actions have consequences, that selfishness can hurt people, and that your parents will try to protect you.

When all seems lost, Merida repents of her bad attitude, confesses what she has done, and, with only seconds left to say goodbye, tries to tell her mother how much she really loves her. Isn’t this a better role model for young girls than the self-justified and always right Rapunzel, whose most heroic moment in her film is telling the stepmother how much she despises her?

You parents reading this, would you prefer to explain the Biblical concept of magic to your kids while watching a movie where spells and incantations do only good, helpful things, or a film where every enchantment is strange and destructive, associated with creepy blue fire and pagan stone circles? Yes, one of these movies is scarier than the other, but it will result in much more thoughtful family conversations.

Tangled takes place in a magical Victorian/Medieval/Renaissance/Candyland, where even the greediest jewel thieves are handsome and charming hunks. Will you be able to warn your daughters that he’s not a good matrimonial prospect? Disney spent millions of dollars and lots of Glen Keane’s unparalleled artistic ability to convince your daughter otherwise by making him seem noble, nice, and like Rapunzel’s obvious destiny. Besides, when Rapunzel’s parent warned her about him, she was being mean and evil and wrong. Can you compete with that level of emotional manipulation?

The ultimate question we need to ask about these movie is not which has less evil in it, but which movie calls evil good, and which movie calls evil evil. Brave easily wins this contest, but unfortunately, it leaves a lot of evil completely unaddressed, and introduces some serious confusion.

Brave vs. Brenda Chapman
When Brave was announced, it was pitched as Pixar’s first film with a female protagonist, and also their first film with a female director. This generated a lot of press about Brenda Chapman breaking into the Pixar boy’s club, and bringing feminism to the screen, and various speculations about how everything was going to change. Then, when Pixar fired her from the project, articles appeared all over the web about how the glass ceiling had fallen on her, and how the chauvinistic male execs at Pixar had chickened out on their edgy, ground-breaking girl movie.

Brenda Chapman

Chapman was replaced by Mark Andrews in late 2010, at roughly the halfway point in actual production, citing the usual “creative differences.” When Brad Bird replaced Jan Pinkava on Ratatouille, we knew enough about his signature style to at least guess at what he might have brought to the table. In this case, Chapman was one of three directors on Prince of Egypt, and in the story department on a number of Disney films, and Andrews has been in the story departments of a number animated films from different studios, so it’s very hard to tell which story concepts came from which director.

We do know that Chapman did want to really push the strong-willed-princess angle, though. In a recent interview she explains her motivation: “Because of marketing, little girls gravitate toward princess products, so my goal was to offer up a different kind of princess — a stronger princess that both mothers and daughters could relate to, so mothers wouldn’t be pulling their hair out when their little girls were trying to dress or act like this princess. Instead they’d be like, ‘Yeah, you go girl!’”

Elinor and Merida

I don’t know how many mothers actually want their daughters to relate to a princess whose only real strengths are defying and nearly killing her mother (and tearing through dresses). In fact, I’d think that most 21st century moms would be very relieved to see their daughters emulating traditional manners and respect for parents, but nevermind.

Reviews jumped on the progressive feminist film angle, but they can’t really agree on what it means. “Holds True to its Feminist Slant,” says the Urban Daily. “A Feminist Triumph!” trumpets Hypable. “A heroine who does not need saving any more than she needs/wants a man!” gushes Ms. Magazine. Indiewire went so far to say that Merida is Pixar’s first lesbian character, and Entertainment Weekly agreed that she was, at the very least, built to appeal to the gay market.

Hardcore feminists, though, are not so sure. Most of them like elements of the film, but don’t feel that the message goes far enough. Time Magazine published an editorial entitled “Why Pixar’s Brave Is a Failure of Female Empowerment.” Jezebel’s reviewer was equally disappointed, asking “maybe they just thought having a female lead was enough?” It’s not surprising that there’s so much confusion on this issue; the film itself is confused. A number of modern gender-equality clichés are trotted out in a world where they don’t even apply.

“A Scottish redhead fights the patriarchy!” Salon’s review cheered, but there is no sign of patriarchy in Brave. King Fergus is every bit as subjugated and submissive to his wife’s will as the castle servants. He doesn’t have a single speech, thought, or fight that isn’t prompted, interrupted, or finished by his wife. This isn’t as painfully obvious as it sounds, because in every case his wife is right, and he, like every man in this movie, is an idiotic, drunken, immature brawler.

King Fergus and Queen Elinor

There is no male domination in this movie, and no male conventions to break. The only thing that Merida is kicking against is Queen Elinor’s rules. Yes, there’s talk about ancient traditions, but when push comes to shove, it turns out that nobody believes the old legends but Elinor and Merida, and the clan leaders are only too happy to break traditions, as long as they can break some crockery while they’re at it.

The inciting incident happens when Merida is being forced into a marriage to prevent war. She bristles at this, partly because the three suitors are the most imbecilic characters in the film, but mostly because a girl kicking against forced marriage is cinematic shorthand for spirited, ahead-of-her-time girl power. The movie’s themes don’t have anything to do with marriage or betrothal, it was just a convenient thing for mother and daughter to fight over, and something that modern audiences would immediately be indignant about.

Kind of like the old corset lacing scene. If you want to show your main character as a spunky free-thinker being constricted by traditional values, just have her complain about how uncomfortable corsets are. This is a literary cliché that predates film, but Hollywood still uses it a lot, like in Mulan, Pirates of the Caribbean, Pocahontas 2, and the new Alice in Wonderland, just to name the recent Disney films. It’s worth noting that Brave takes place hundreds of years before corsets were invented, but Merida (and only Merida) gets squeezed into one just the same.

It’s also worth noting that, as threatened, the war does actually break out, in the very dining hall of the castle. Elinor is outraged, and she puts a stop to it by dragging her husband, and the other clan leaders, out of the fray by their ears. They get a sound scolding in front of their soldiers, and that’s that. The peace lasts until she leaves the room. Statecraft in this particular Scotland is even more like ordering four-year-olds around than modern international diplomacy.

Unlike the Vikings in Dragon these Scots aren’t fighting for survival or domination or justice or anything. They’re just a childish parcel o’ rogues who love quaffing and quarrelling for fun, and Queen Elinor doesn’t, not for moral reasons, but because it’s hard on the peace and its hard on the furniture. And she’s the boss, which means the movie is about feminism after all.

Merida and Elinor

Elinor is a strong, intelligent, calm and unflappable queen, superior to all the men in her domain. She makes the rules, cracks down on displays of silly masculinity, and her word is law. Feminists like all of this. But then, Merida is a spunky tomboy who wants to follow her heart and be her own woman. She questions authority, eschews traditional femininity, and won’t bow to any rules. Feminists like all this, too.

It’s no wonder that these two characters end up fighting, or that feministic reviewers are fighting over this film. Nobody can agree on what this film means, because its main messages conflict with each other, and there is no over-arching theme to unify things.

Brave vs. Brave
There are two over-arching themes. No, I guess there are three. Ok, four. The film open with a voice over from Princess Merida talking about fate, explaining that “It’s the one thing we search for, or fight to change. Some never find it. But there are some who are led.” The little blue spirits do lead her to her destiny, but is fate predestination? If so, how can you fail to find it? Can you actually change it, or just fight vainly against it?

This is just mythic-sounding gobbledygook. It doesn’t actually set up the story or tell us the rules of this world. How to Train Your Dragon begins with the main character introducing the world in a dry, on-the-nose, even monotone voiceover. It’s not as solemn and vague as Brave’s, but when it ends, you know the names of all the characters, where they live, how the dragons work, and the main theme of the film.

Brave’s theme isn’t even about fate, at all, so making the introduction revolve around it is weak. Merida mentions fate once more, in Act II, when she asks for the witch to use magic to change her fate. Again, we don’t know if “fate” means circumstance, environment, other people, opportunity, destiny, or anything. It doesn’t come up again until the closing voice over: “Some say fate is beyond our command, but I know better. Our destiny is within us. You just have to be brave enough to see it.”

This last line is really, really important, because it’s the only connection that the film has to its title. The film isn’t about cowardice or courage, the moral tests aren’t about bravery, and the only verbal mentions of fear or fearlessness are in relation to the three stooge suitors. The Bear and the Bow is a much more apt title, so I think “Brave” was chosen to be subtly reminiscent of Mel Gibson’s Scottish Oscar-winning blockbuster smash.

So, if the theme isn’t in its title, and it isn’t in the introductory comments, is it the feminism angle? Well, not really. The film is certainly set in a feministic world, where men have ceded control to feminists, but the groundbreaking girl power theme is more present in the marketing than the movie itself. In every interview the creators are focused on this, even when they say they aren’t.

“Because she’s adventurous and athletic and outdoorsy, her gender is not the most important thing about her.” explained producer Katherine Sarafian, but cinema is filled with adventurous, athletic, outdoorsy characters. In order for Merida to be as gutsy and new a character as we’re told, she has to be a girl, and we have buy into the presupposition that girls have never been adventurous, athletic, outdoorsy characters.

Merida Swordfight

We’ve been seeing adventurous female characters since the silent era, and the movie’s themes are equally long in the tooth. This is not a bad thing; there are as few good themes as there are good story elements – and one of the themes is very good. “A true queen will always sacrifice her desires for her people,” Elinor teaches her daughter. The other theme is not so good: “Always be true to yourself and follow your heart,” as taught by Merida. These themes do not go together. They are in total opposition to each other, like many of this film’s elements.

This is why the opinions on this film are so varied. Depending on your interpretation, this movie teaches almost anything. The genre is even variable, since the audience can decide whether they want to be moved by Elinor’s horror at becoming a bear or laugh as she struggles with the embarrassment of suddenly being huge, hairy, and slobbery. The movie plays alternate scenes for pathos and comedy, and it only says “this is good” or “this is bad” about a few, simple, safe things. Nobody is offended when you disapprove of forced marriage, but no comment is made on the witch.

And by not passing judgment on the events of the film, the directors missed out on a lot of opportunity. Opportunities for teaching good lessons and bad. Ideas of feminism, bravery, destiny, witchcraft, family relations could all have been either condemned or upheld by the film. Instead, the story just meanders, and the values system of the movie’s universe changes from scene to scene. Worse, the emotional power of the film is undercut when elements are contradictory.

Now, my readers who believe that films don’t communicate messages, or shouldn’t, might be thinking this is a good thing. What’s wrong with a non-judgmental film that lets the audience decide what lessons they want to leave with? It’s weak. From a story perspective, it’s weak. We never know who or what to root for, what the stakes are, or even what the rules are. Other Pixar films make clear moral judgments (even if it’s just on small things like taking care of your toys), so there’s no confusion, and we can be totally on board with the theme, and the characters, and the world.

I’m hoping that Pixar’s next film will be brave enough to have some consistent principles. It’s the only way for them to get good story back on track.

Check out my sisters’ review: “Can we have a braver princess, please?“.

  1. Thanks for the short review! We were just discussing this one at dinner and I was surmising that since it was about a girl with a bow, it was another tiresome attempt at feminist storytelling. My brother said it was apparently because ‘all the protagonists from the last X number of Pixar movies have been male.’ I’m tempted to say that’s why they were so good. Pixar! What happened to you?

    “Manic pixie dream girl”? Is–is that a TV Tropes reference I see before me? ;)

    1. I think “manic pixie dream girl” predates that, but nowadays just about everything is on TV Tropes. Merida, on the other hand, is a Pictsie.

      Personally, I don’t think there’s any reason not to make films with female protagonists, but they will, inevitably and inexorably and inherently be different kinds of films than those with male protagonists. There’s no getting around this, and while many studios should make these films, probably not Pixar. Pixar is not just an animation studio, but an animation studio with a signature style of art and motion. One of the reasons Brave is weak is that any animation studio could have pulled it off, and that it really didn’t need to be animated in the first place.

      Action-comedies about toys, bugs, fish, monsters, and cartoon superheros need to animated. Fairy tales, maybe. Introspective mother-daughter relationship dramas about historical humans, on the other hand, can probably pack more punch with live-action photography. Now that Pixar is part of Disney, they should send their non-Pixarish ideas to other departments and focus on what they do best, or better yet, what only they can do. Wouldn’t it have been awful if John Carter of Mars was Pixar’s first live action movie? Brave almost feels like that to me.

      Which reminds me, I loved your review of Princess of Mars. I really liked the book.

  2. Pixar has gone through a few bumpy years of movie-making. Hopefully with the films in the future, they will learn from their mistakes. I’m sure that Ed Catmull is learning and trying to figure out how to manage these creatives.

  3. I think Pixar is confused because feminists are confused. Feminists want to usurp the role of men, but when the men abdicate and want to play instead of do duty, now the women want to usurp that role. By trying to lead and become new, feminists can’t help but follow whatever men are doing, good or bad.

    - Adam Terrell
  4. Interesting read. I challenge you to create a script for an animated movie that would be a good combination of storyline, Biblical morality, action, justice, and a moderately happy ending!! Good luck!

    - Laura
  5. @laura

    Issac is to smart to get into fictional film making. He would basically lose his credibility since everyone and his (sorry in your case “her”) brother would turn into a critic.

    Better off making documentaries and non-fiction that can not be questioned.

    Sorry Issac… …no offense

    - John-Mark
    1. Oh no, I’m not too smart for that. I’ve written dozens of treatments and scripts for films, some animated, and they need exactly the same kind of critical review and development that Brave did. And in my experience, people are a lot more suspicious of docos than features, since they think one has an agenda and the other is “just a story.”

  6. I think this was a well written review. The comparisons were great.

    You have saved me some time and money because I won’t have to watch the film.

    Not that I planned on watching it anyway. The trailer was weak from the start.

    - John-Mark
  7. Oh dear; I thought at first you’d be too critical, but your description of the father in “Brave” does not sound good, and you were very fair about the excellent points in the film’s favor. I hadn’t considered some of the things you said about “Tangled”, but there were some things you overlooked about it: Rapunzel DID love her mother and tried to save her, the thief was clearly supposed to redeem himself by sacrifice for Rapunzel (though the cheerful merriment with him beforehand was clumsy storytelling), and even if it’s wrong, it’s more than natural for a grotesquely cloistered woman to branch out and rebel, even if she’s as miraculously sweet-tempered as Rapunzel. As for Merida, she was brave before she repented; her bravery came from trying to protect herself and her mother in the forest, and perhaps her mother was portrayed as being too domineering since she seemed to lighten up.

    - Jennifer
  8. One more thing: your sisters had an excellent review too, but you guys are too hard on Disney princesses. Of course they’re often simple, they’re supposed to be; sweet little Snow White was, but she and the story were supposed to be, a child’s magnificent opera tale. Belle risked herself for her father; Ariel risked a lot for others beside herself; Jasmine was tough but extremely feminine, and Cinderella had kindness but realistic spark. Offhand, these girls are definitely preferable to Barbie and truly cardboard characters.

    - Jennifer
    1. With regards to Tangled, the icing on the cake is undeniably good, but the issue is with the underlying story and world. The writers have carefully stacked the deck so that everything wrong is totally “natural,” and expected, and what we want to see, despite it being wrong. That’s the problem with the story, and with Flynn. A dashing thief who starts off greedy but ends up being selfless is actually a problem if it stops there, because this small repentance tricks us into thinking that he shouldn’t have any restitution or punishment coming. Obviously Rapunzel’s new parents can issue some sort of undeserved deus ex machina royal pardon, but it’s kind of cheating when the writers A) make the thief a handsome, nice, poor orphan B) never actually show him stealing anything except the crown that belongs to his future wife C) make law enforcement look like terrible mean guys D) have him correct a smaller flaw later in the film E) make the only crime we see be against people who end up owing him a favor F) have the happiness of our heroine dependent on his not having to pay for his earlier, non-portrayed crimes.

      This is a lot of tricky moral gymnastics, but it’s the same formula from Aladdin. How easy it would have been to make him a young and green courier, trying to protect the crown he’s carrying from the twin Ron Perlmans, refusing to guide Rapunzel because of his single-minded focus on his duty. Now instead of just equally selfish, capricious people who simply want different things, the two of them are opposites in motive, personality, and experience. They clash because they see life differently, but their strengths and weaknesses compliment each other. They both grow in clearer, more specific ways, and they grow together for more reasons than just being cute together.

      And if you re-read my sister’s review, I don’t think that they are being too critical of Disney’s early princesses. Especially since their main comments were about the official Disney Princess Line of Consumer Franchise Merchandise Treasures or whatever it’s called. The Disney-licensed Barbie dolls, direct-to-video sequels, dress-up costumes, plastic jewelry, sing-a-long CDs, bedroom decor, stuffed animals, and more. It’s odd to me that the main films claim to be moving more towards aggressively non-feminine characters, and then the associated merchandise ends up being such distastefully fluffy frippery. It’s really awful stuff.

  9. Hmm, that’s true, I guess there wouldn’t be any punishment for the thief (I have far more sympathy for Aladdin, since he stole to survive). Thanks for adding the extra clarification about the Disney products; the dress-up, tea and costume stuff was something my sisters and I definitely did NOT get involved in, inspite of our love of Disney.

    - Jennifer
  10. Your review helped me a lot in seeing this movie as it was, and making comparisons to other movies was an idea I didn’t really think about. Thanks!

  11. Yeah! I loved the review! We had the same feelings about Tangled…initially we walked out with wonderful warm fuzzy feelings but as we discussed it, the “issues” started popping out all over the place. We sent your review to family back east so they knew what to look for in watching Brave, for some reason that one wasn’t tempting enough for us. AND we are looking forward to your movies!!!…with great story lines! Glad your writing reviews, can’t wait to check out your sister’s as well!

    - Monica
  12. I disagree with you on ” no moral judgments makes a movie weak”, I don’t like it when movies have a “big moral message”. I don’t want that to be shoveled down my or my future childrens throats. That’s why I (and so many others) like Astrid Lindgren, she writes good stories about children from a childs perspective without these “omg very important moral message thing”.

    I hope the next movie protaganist of the Disney/Pixar/dreamwork whatever studio is a child that children can relate to and spare them form having to look up to some teen. Wouldn’t it have been great if Merida had stayed in her child form (or be like 8-10 years old) throughout the film (ofcourse with some plot and ability changes as well)? I mean you could still have a stubborn outdoorish temper on her and making her accidently transform her mother into a bear.

    Disney make family movies (mainly aimed for children) but I can’t think of one film where the protoganist is a child (not teen)… It’s pretty strange isn’t it?

    - Isabella
    1. Well, Isabella, every film does have a moral message. It’s not possible for it to be completely neutral, and when authors pretend that it is, they leave too much up for interpretation, they miss out on opportunities to grab the audience. It’s harder to root for the hero if the author pretends that the rightness or wrongness of his actions are immaterial. I don’t really want to see the protagonist succeed if not even the director is convinced that he’s doing the right thing.

      I have to admit that I’m not too familiar with Lindgren’s work outside of the Pippi Longstocking books, but she’s a great example of what I’m talking about. Astrid Lindgren had a clear moral compass, which she communicated clearly when she was protesting against corporal punishment in Sweden. Her worldview obviously trickles down into her books even if she doesn’t spell it out. For example, Pippi is always using her superhuman strength against adults in defense of other kids.

      Not to get into a debate about child abuse, but I think if Lindgren had more clearly stated the situation, the reader would have liked Pippi more for her selfless actions, rather than seeing them as just another weird thing that she does. Now, I realize that that’s kinda the point about Pippi, but even though the author doesn’t make clear moral statements to ingratiate her audience to her characters, her worldview is obvious. Her moral values regarding kids and adults are easily picked up by readers even it there isn’t any “Hey, Tommy and Annika, let’s sum up what we learned today,” preaching.

      Great point about the teen heroes for child audiences. I guess the last time a Disney movie had a preteen protagonist was “Rescuers Down Under.” I suppose the thinking is that the kids in the audience want look up to and identify with cooler, older characters, but not so old as to actually be boring adults. I don’t think that always works though; when I was a kid, my friends and I all wanted to be Han Solo, not whiny Luke Skywalker. And I think there’s a lot of value in showing kids examples of people who are their own ages, too.

  13. I’ve read this like a dozen times already (I keep coming back to add things to my arguments about Merida and Rapunzel- and yes, I have had to make arguments for/against them) but this was great! Rapunzel is a good heroine in theory but bad in practice, whereas Merida is te exact opposite. sadly, it is sweet, loyal Rapunzel and bratty, selfish Merida people like/dislike and remember, not the fact that Rapunzel doesnt need to repent and is actually defiant and, as you said, ALWAYS right, even when she’s wrong (not that THAT’s possible! Hence why she has no reason to repent!) and Merida actually accepts blame for her actions. That being said, I still prefer Rapunzel even though Merida makes better choices in the end. Not that I agree with Punz’s choices of course; I just prefer her personality (who wouldnt?) and relate to her more.

    Also, in this or Part 1, you said the movie Mulan stupid. I don’t agree or disagree, but I’d love to know why you think that is, because I’ve never known anyone to dislike it. And how do you feel about Mulan as a role model? She loyally takes her dad’s place but by doing so endangers herself, her family, and does a lot of rash things.

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