A new type of princess.

Pixar has done nothing for me since Up. I’ve never understood why people like the Toy Story movies as much as they do and the less said about Cars 2 the better. Now in what is a landmark moment that should have come a decade ago, Pixar decided to make a movie about women. Not only is Merida (Kelly MacDonald) the first female protagonist in a Pixar movie, this is the first time a Pixar film has focused on an exclusively female relationship: that of mother and daughter. Though destined to be a Disney Princess (another first for Pixar, getting a character into that vaunted club), Merida is a new breed. Gone is the tacit assurance that finding love and getting married is the apex of womanly existence. You have to hand it to Pixar: when they join a club, they aim to change it. Maybe this is because Brenda Chapman, getting credit both as a writer and director on the project, is a woman. She was the first woman to direct a major animated feature for a Hollywood studio (The Prince of Egypt). So there’s a lot of new ground being broken by Brave behind the scenes.

In terms of quality, well, Brave is every bit as good as the typical Pixar movie. It’s got the same beating heart beneath the action and comedy, the same simple but completely human themes running through its somewhat fantastic story. Above all, it’s really about relationships between people and strong emotions expressed through clear, confident storytelling. This is another one of those cases where they make it look easy over there. It’s got a little The Little Mermaid mixed into its DNA and I don’t just say that because half the characters are gingers. There’s the same narrative of the rebellious young woman only this time, it’s her mother and not her father she’s rebelling against. Add in some colorful secondary characters, a magic spell, and some danger and you’ve got a solid formula that, while not groundbreaking, allows everything about Brave that is groundbreaking to breathe.

There’s a ginger joke in here somewhere.

Merida is on the cusp of womanhood and while her younger brothers have the run of the castle, she is subject to the courtly training of her imperious mother, the Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson). With her more fun-loving and indulgent father, King Fergus (Billy Connolly) giving her a bit of freedom to explore her own identity along the way, Merida grows up with nothing but distaste for the life of a princess. It’s not that she wants to be a warrior or anything else really. She doesn’t know what she wants except the chance to find that out. She’s a cypher for the classic teenage coming of age story and even though this is medieval Scotland, it works. It works very well, actually. Brave deserves to be considered among the best of the Pixar films and I honestly don’t get the weirdly mixed reaction it’s getting.

A lot is made in the film of Merida’s skill with a bow. I said she doesn’t necessarily want to be a warrior but she certainly enjoys the option. She likes exercise and physical stuff and looks up to her father, a legendary warrior. She wants to shoot her bow, which she is awesome with, and swing a sword. That’s not womanly, though, and so she wants to even more. There’s something in there about the gender assignment of cultural roles and it’s telling that Merida gravitates toward the trappings of a man while constantly being pulled in the other direction by her mother.

Fergus means well but is totally clueless about the tension between the two most important women in his life. Go figure!

It seems like an uneasy balance has been the status quo since Merida was a child. Now that she’s older, the leaders of the other regional clans have come to bid on her hand and so keep their alliance in tact. Rather than leaving it at “princesses must get married and that’s that”, the film offers a good reason for Merida’s situation. It’s not fair, like she says, but it’s culturally relevant and it’s got a practical purpose.

Bechdel just shat herself.

Because they do the work to set that up, I figured the movie would end with Merida getting married or at least on her way to it. Mostly because this is inarguably better justification for the reinforcement of marriage as a normative than is present in virtually all the other Disney films that end with the “princess” getting hitched. But no, says Pixar, fuck that fucking shit. If Merida don’t wanna, Merida don’t haveta. I think it takes a lot of nerve to keep Merida single by the end of the film, especially when they largely bought themselves out of the usual criticisms by actually taking the time to develop a context and establish some stakes (if she doesn’t, the clans will go to war). So bravo, Pixar. There’s no love story in this movie, except that of mother and daughter.

Most of the movie is Merida dealing with her mother’s stubborn resolve that she marry one of the eccentric clan heirs, none of which are all that appealing to her (or us). Before long, Merida stumbles on that most tricky of solutions: magic. Encountering a crotchety but entertainingly crazy old witch –er woodcarver– Merida gets her hands on a magic cake that will “change” her mother. With the reckless assurance of the teenage mind, Merida immediately feeds this shit to her mom which turns her into a fucking bear.

C’mon, you figured this twist out already.

Elinor is still mostly herself in bear form and it’s hilarious. They managed to create a sort of affected bipedal walking stance that she does in bear form and it never gets old. Slew me every time I saw it. Merida immediately recognizes the harm in what she did and the second act is the two of them trying to figure out how to reverse the spell. The answer is more or less clear, but the complication is that a demon bear named Mor’du ate Fergus’s leg a decade ago and the guy pretty much hates bears. His castle is full of stuffed bears, he wears a bearskin, and the family crest is bears. I mean, the guy has issues with bears.

Pixar tried to keep this whole bear transformation thing mostly under wraps which I don’t get. I could understand if the worry was about unfavorable comparisons to Disney’s Brother Bear (ie: people calling this a Scottish reskin or something) but they don’t hold up so I really don’t understand. After the John Carter marketing fiasco and other weird shit going on over there lately, I just have to wonder if Disney’s marketing department decided to run their business like Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce after too many cocktails. At any rate, I spill the beans here because really, who cares? It doesn’t ruin the movie to know this, in fact it might even be more impetus to see it after the sort of “what is this really even about?” marketing. I mean, they changed the name of the film from (the more interesting) The Bear and the Bow to Brave for what reason? To evoke Braveheart as a way to sell the movie? Is it because they worried “boys” wouldn’t want to see a movie about a girl and figured changing the name would fix it, the same way they determined that John Carter of Mars would scare all the “girls” away from their already doomed movie? I mean what gives, Disney? You used to be good at this shit.

Thankfully Pixar have created another masterpiece that should transcend any marketing or title issues.

Pixar makes warm movies, and it’s treatment of Scottish motifs and characters is the warmest use of stereotyping ever.

The setting and cultural material derived from it act as a character in the film, basically. The movie sometimes presents us with familiar, Scotland-lite cliches (haggis, unimaginative names, etc) but there’s a real love for both Scotland and the Celtic mystique that goes a bit beyond window-dressing. It’s present in the art of the film, the plentiful shots of mists and glens, lochs and woods, and the detail of the character design. Everything from knotwork to woad paint finds its way into this movie, and the warrior tradition of the Scots, including the virtues of bravery and honor, are embraced without stopping to dismiss violence to preserve the kiddie-movie shield. Of course it isn’t a realistic film, but it is authentic.

Brave is not as action-packed as the trailers may have suggested. It has its share of 2012’s omnipresent bow porn, but it’s not like Merida is Mulan. Where its heart truly lays is in family drama, not dissimilar from The Incredibles (which had more ambitious scope but a less intimate story at the heart), with a heavy dose of comedy. Brave is a really funny movie, actually, though some of the best moments were in the trailers. Fortunately, all the stuff with the “wee devils” (Merida’s three brothers) is just for the movie. They are seriously a comedy trio of epic proportions.

When there is action, Pixar isn’t afraid to get nice and dramatic.

For all that the other stuff works, the best part of the movie is Merida and Elinor. They are both compelling versions of familiar characters and Pixar makes sure to show their work, as per usual, giving viewers reasons to sympathize with both and understand them even when they’re being horrible. Merida is as stubborn and selfish as she thinks Elinor is, and Elinor is too concerned with tradition and duty to see who her daughter even is. They both learn a lot about themselves and each other and it might sound cheesy, or even be cheesy, if Pixar’s writers and directors weren’t the absolute best at this kind of story. The care taken with these characters and this truly uncomplicated story is an embarrassment to all movies that try to shorthand these types of relationships on the way to getting to the stuff no one cares as much about: self-involved mysteries, mindless spectacle, obligatory romance, etc. With some charm and wit, you can give even the simplest stories wings. And that’s Pixar’s secret. They know this and they know that the simplest stories, at their emotional core, are always the best and the most resonant.

This is the kind of heroine I want my own daughter to identify with.

Maybe Brave, female-centric as it is, would have been impossible a few short years ago. Things have changed, though, and the evidence is everywhere. Nice to see Pixar getting on board. Brave is another in the vein of movies that I feel like are most “for” the young women who’ve grown up interested in traditionally boyish stuff, whether it be a heroic narrative or swords and archery. Girls and young women who don’t automatically gender activities, objects, or points of view as they are so often brought up to.

Just today my kid lamented that they don’t make enough “girl LEGO” and while I frown on her even caring about something like “girl LEGO”, I understand where she’s coming from at the same time. LEGO is a heavily masculinized toy and while I’d prefer it if Haylee wasn’t the kind of kid who cared about that, it’s not really her fault that she does and it’s kind of true that LEGO skews heavily to the normalization of a gender divide in their toys. That said, she also loved Brave and understood Merida so I can’t worry too much. Gotta trust that she grows up to put what she wants in her hand, whether it’s a bow or a hairbrush, and sees past whether it’s “for girls” or “for boys”. I hope the same for the potential audience of Brave. It’s a feminist movie, or maybe a post-feminist one, and that can only be a good thing for both boys and girls. Especially since, at heart, Merida’s story isn’t about being a girl but learning to recognize the space between duty to the self and duty to others, a major part of growing up for all genders and sexes in all cultures.

The real twist is that Merida’s mother kinda becomes her boyfriend. Because feminism.