Pixar movies are, in so many ways, what I hope for movies to become: visually stunning, narratively inventive, and often about issues like aging, masculinity, fatherhood, and responsibility, but with a confidence that the audience will derive those themes from an excellent original story, rather than needing them clearly articulated. Marlin’s search for Nemo is about the recovery of his own bravery and sense of adventure, a chance to overcome the worry-wart tendencies that have plagued him since his wife’s death, as much as it is the recovery of his son. Carl Frederickson’s adventures in Up are about rectifying what he sees as his two failures as a husband, his diminished dreams of adventure and his inability to become a father. Wall-E is about the power of love, from a young robot’s perspective rather than a young man’s. These men’s emotional experiences are specific to them and influenced by their gender, but their adventures are not particularly male or female experiences: there is nothing gendered about surfing with sea turtles, hanging out with talking dogs, or running around a space ship. And so it does feel like Pixar’s denied us something in giving its first female protagonist a uniquely gendered catalyst for her adventure—in other words, by making her a fairy tale princess—by not making her the subject of a more truly universal story, and in doing so asserted that the default in such settings need not always be male.
But it would be a shame to dismiss Brave on those grounds. Pixar isn’t the only standard for greatness. Brave plants a flag in much-derided territory and makes something visually gorgeous and emotionally rich out of the familiar rhythms of fairy tales. And while the wars between mothers and daughters and fathers and sons may be fought on different ground, Brave should stand as a reminder that those battles can be equally lacerating, and equally resonant, no matter the gender of the participants.
Brave begins with a tiny, flame-haired Scottish princess at peace with both of her parents, Elinor (Emma Thompson), the mother who plays hide and seek with her, and Fergus (Billy Connolly), the father who gives her a bow of her own for her birthday and patiently teaches her how to shoot. Their peace is shattered when a bear breaks up their family gathering, scattering Merida (Kelly Macdonald) and Elinor, and costing Fergus his leg.
As Merida gets older, the tensions between her and her mother grow, too. Elinor (Emma Thompson) isn’t a bad mother, but the tension between them is inevitable. Some of the training Elinor gives Merida hints at a greater role for her—”A princess must be knowledgeable about her kingdom”—and some of it carries tinges of the kind of innate cruelty of mothering. “Hungry, are you?” Elinor asks Merida when she brings a plate of desserts to the dinner table. “You’ll get dreadful collywobbles.” Some of the power of Brave is the way it gives depth and power to those ordinary motherly slights. Elinor’s comments come after Merida’s spent a day ranging through the woods with her horse Angus in one of the more powerful sequences I’ve seen of a girl enjoying her body’s capacities and the pleasure of being very, very good at something. Elinor’s words undermine Merida’s pleasure in her strength and exercise, aimed at making her physically and emotionally fit the corset she’s stuffed into for the Highland Games.
Those games prove to be Merida’s breaking point. Faced with the prospect of being married off to one of three equally unsuitable boys from the three clans that have pledged allegiance, she and Angus take to the woods, and Merida purchases a spell that she hopes will change her mother, and by doing so, change the fate for which Elinor has relentlessly prepared her. Here, what should have been some of the movie’s most powerful, eerie sequences degenerate into a kind of Dreamworks silliness. The witch has a smart-talking raven who cracks jokes about princes in tight pants, more Donkey from Shrek than the witty talking dogs of Up, and makes references to hitting up a Wicker Man festival. These lapses break the sense of being in a truly different universe. An ability to sustain these clean parallel realities has always been one of Pixar’s strengths, and to see them pandering to mass culture, and playing to the crowd with the movie’s decidedly broad male characters is a disappointing sign of nervousness about losing the audience.
These lapses are all the more frustrating because they’re so unnecessary, and even then, they’re outweighed by the movie’s strengths. Merida isn’t the only character who is marvelously physically present. Her triplet brothers are classic Pixar scamps, turning the family’s castle upside down in displays of genius pantomime. The movie’s bears have remarkable humanity, whether it’s expressed in daintily folded paws and a refusal to walk anything but upright or a snarling ferocity—Brave has one of the most genuinely frightening action sequences of the summer. Elinor learns to value Merida’s skills, and displays an unexpected physical courage. Merida comes to recognize her mother’s adaptability and that there are times when stillness and patience are more powerful than action. And Brave holds Merida morally responsible and asks her to make compromises and mature decisions in a way animated movies—even Pixar ones—very rarely ask of children and young adults.
To miss that respect for Merida because Brave isn’t quite what we expect from a Pixar movie would be unfortunate. As Merida learns, there are lessons in legends. And even old tropes can be made beautiful and powerful all over again.