Film review – Brave (2012)

Brave: Merida (voice by Kelly Macdonald)
Merida (voice by Kelly Macdonald)

The first Pixar fairy tale film, which is also the first Pixar film with a female protagonist, begins with a fantastic first act that is full of potential. Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald) is a young Scottish princess and a skilled archer who is completely disinterested in living the life of a princess. She is the antitheses of the type of female lead that appears in most classic Disney and contemporary non-Pixar Disney feature animation films. Such female leads are mostly either princesses who have been denied their birthright or beautiful young girls whose good deeds are rewarded by them becoming princesses through marriage. Instead Merida hates the demands that come with the dubious honour of being born into royalty. Her tangled, matted and wild red hair is a constant reminder of her defiance against the restrictive and mannered lifestyle she is supposed to lead. In one scene where she is forced to look presentable, she protests against the tight and uncomfortable clothes, which hamper her archery, and she plucks out a strand of hair from her bonnet in protest. She stands up to her parents who are pushing her into an arranged marriage and more than holds her own against the suitors who are presented to her. Everything about the first act of Brave suggests a story of independence and following your own path, so it is disappointing when it instead becomes a moralising tale about the importance of obeying your parents.

The main source of conflict in Brave is between Merida and her mother Queen Elinor (voiced by Emma Thompson). Initially audience sympathies are with Merida for being pressured into an arranged marriage, with Elinor depicted as the driving force behind the arrangement. Merida’s father King Fergus (Billy Connolly) is portrayed as far more supportive of Merida’s freedom, although he does little to prevent the situation, but is nevertheless let off the hook and is represented as just a bit goofy rather than an actual threat. At the key turning point in Brave, the message of the film becomes extremely confused. While Merida seems to have every reason to be angry with her mother and justified in taking action, her major act of defiance is shown to be extremely severe and destructive. Brave then becomes a redemption story about Merida undoing the harm she has caused.

The resulting film is about the mother and daughter dynamic where Merida must learn that mother knows best and that she was wrong to act against her. While Brave offers the suggestion of a fun filled adventure film, and while some kind of heroic journey is more often that not the core of such coming-of-age stories, the action in Brave is located within the castle and its immediate surrounds making it more a domestic drama. The middle and final acts of the film not only lack spirit, but contain a mixed and contradictory message, made even more bewildering by how Merida’s and Elinor’s attitudes change during the film. Brave wants the audience to believe that it really is in favour of people choosing their own fate, but it makes Merida suffer guilt for trying to escape hers and it presents her arranged marriage as a necessity for social stability. It is astonishing just how much Brave presents Merida’s desire for independence as a selfish act that could destabilise society and potentially result in war.

The male characters in Brave are also presented in a way that gives off mixed messages. On the one hand, they are all comical and somewhat ineffective. King Fergus is loveable and kind, but ultimately a bit of a windbag. He begins as the one who most sticks up for Merida, but ends up as one of the biggest threats to the physical safety of the women – albeit unintentionally. The other rulers are all hotheaded and filled with petty rivalries while the three suitors are a preening Alpha Male, an inarticulate lug and one who appears to be severely mentally handicapped. Nevertheless, it is ultimately the word of the men that dictates how things eventuate. The women get to ‘manipulate’ behind the scenes, but the men get the final say. While Disney and Pixar haven’t been afraid to kill off a parent in male-centric stories (Bambi, The Lion King, Finding Nemo) they instead merely have Fergus lose his leg, which is then played throughout the film for laughs. It’s as if the filmmakers were afraid to commit to a fully female centric film and felt the need to include the rule of the father, even though the father is mostly redundant throughout the film.

Brave argues that it is good for young women to demand independence and free will, but warns that if they push too hard they will potentially do irrevocable damage to their family and possibly society. Girls can have freedom, but only if that is okay with their parents. This film has the veneer of feminism and a strong female protagonist, but it still reinforces a lot of patriarchal constructs. The resolution appears progressive on the surface, but it is only possible with several conditions that are ultimately very conservative. Brave is the equivalent of a man patting a woman on the head and saying, ‘Go and exercise your free-will sweetie, but just make sure you play by my rules. Isn’t self-determination cute!’

Pixar don’t really need to ever prove themselves again having produced a consecutive string of outstanding animations that include WALL·E, Up and Toy Story 3; three of the best feature animations ever made. However, after the bland Cars 2 and now Brave it does feel worryingly like the good times may be coming to an end. Brave is a much more coherent and engaging film than Cars 2, but its troubling subtext and limp narrative hold it back. And like Cars 2, it seems to be aiming for more of a younger audience and has lost the sophistication of the earlier films where the humour wasn’t disposable and could be enjoyed on several levels. While the animation is the most complex seen in a Pixar film to date, it simply doesn’t contain the necessary magic, awe or wonder required for the visual style to overcome the narrative weaknesses. Maybe it is unfair to be so harsh on Brave because Pixar films are held to such a high standard, but watching Brave is a frustrating experience and mostly because it began with so much promise.

Thomas Caldwell, 2012


  1. I think it’s not as black-and-white as you suggest. (Some spoilers follow.)

    It’s just as much about Elinor learning to understand and value her daughter as a capable individual, rather than as a ‘princess’ avatar. Think of that scene in which Merida can catch fish and knows the berries are poisonous (the whole thing is very Hunger Games). And ultimately the marriage problem is solved by giving everyone free choice to marry.

    I actually preferred the second and third acts of the film to what I thought was a pretty crappy, tired depiction of a ‘spirited young woman crushed by patriarchal social expectations’ – the tight dress and corset in particular is such a cornily mimetic device that has been used in films as diverse as Titanic and Pirates of the Caribbean.

  2. Thanks Mel – you make some really strong points, but my main problem still is…

    Massive spoilers!

    … Merida has to apologise to her mother to break the deadly spell – apologise for taking action to stop her mother from forcing her into an arranged marriage.

  3. I think you missed some of what the film was about. She wasn’t apologizing about going against the marriage. She was apologizing for failing to speak to her mother about the issue diplomatically, and instead running off and taking matters into her own hands. Hence the scene in the first act where Merida and Elinor are rationally speaking to each other, but in different rooms, and the subsequent dress scene where Elinor avoids speaking with Merida. Both scenes outline the flaws of the two characters. It’s not really supposed to be an overdone “strong independent single female” story, though I agree that they could’ve toned that down a bit to make the actual story direction a bit clearer.

  4. So basically you object to it because it’s moralising in favor of ideas you don;t like. if it were moralising in favour of ideas that you *do* like, the it would be great.

  5. Hi John – you also make some good points and I see where you are coming from, but I just can’t get past that fact that Elinor was pushing Merida into an arranged marriage. Is Merida really at fault for taking matters into her own hands when faced with such a fate? And I like strong female characters and strong female stories. I wish this film was more so in both regards.

    Nergol – I don’t really like moralising of any kind, but since I don’t live in an ethical vacuum I am going to critique films that I think are ethically problematic. At the very least, I’ll try and write something that starts a conversation about the issues. I hope you’re okay with that.

  6. Darn it! Respect and redemption. What were they thinking? Dont you just hate it when a movie targets kids for its own social agenda?…you know….like moralizing and all that!

  7. I know sarcasm is cute and fun Joe, but I think you missed some of the details of what I was writing about if you think I’m simply against respect and redemption. On the plus side, I am pleased to see you recognise the extent in which films do seek to influence and persuade the audience to adopt certain values.

  8. Nice review! A conflicting tale is what I get from your review.

    I think much good history is overlooked by framing it from an official Western PC 20th/21st Century pov – feminist; patriarchs matriarchs.
    In Shakespeare there’s little questioning ‘the structure.’
    It’s people; clannish – brothers; sisters; husbands; wives: families, where gender and position are usually second to the nature of individuals.

    Probably Brave was trying to poke its nose into Shakespeare or the like, but I’m guessing that in Brave‘s writers’ workshop similar debates arose to those here, resulting in a conflicting tale.

    The result is a ‘frustrating experience,’ as you say.

  9. I was thinking that if we compare it Dreamworks How To Train Your Dragon (another film set in an ancient Scottish kingdom) we see some major differences. Dragon is a boy’s story, well at least, little Hiccup is the protagonist. But it’s message is not as tame or domestic as Brave‘s. Hiccup and the other kids challenge the status quo, and change the way things are done, very effectively. They show mum and dad who is boss. When Hiccup discovers his destiny, his father (note in Dragon, the mother has been killed off) is the one who apologies to Hiccup in the end. Amazing how ‘defy your parents’ can be safely placed in a boys tale, but not in a girl’s.

  10. Ruth, Dragon was set in Scandinavia – the land of vikings. Easy to mistake since Dragon features accents from all over the globe, including Craig Ferguson from Scotland (who’s also in Brave), but it is a distinct difference.

    Thomas, can’t say I agree with you, but you sure do put up a spirited argument. I’d perhaps even be tempted to really second guess my thoughts on the film (which I loved – I care to see it as more “innocent” like A Bug’s Life or Monsters Inc, than overly kiddie like Cars 2) – if it weren’t for the ending, which seems to say that all of the pomp that surrounded the arranged marriage was indeed ridiculous and that the idea of such an arrangement was offensive not only to the girl, but to the boys who were pushed into it by their fathers who were after little more than tribe pride.

    ***Spoiler warning***

    I don’t think the film is asking viewers to accept that what Merida did – defying her mother – was wrong and that she should have to apologise, but that going into the forest and getting a witch to put a spell on her mother (which also affected her brothers) was perhaps not the most responsible of acts. In the process it allowed her to see that her mother was merely following centuries of tradition or what she legitimately thought was “best” for her daughter. It also allowed the mother to see that, yes, her daughter shouldn’t have to go through with the barbaric marriage tradition. In the end Merida came out in front (and didn’t get a last minute love interest, thankfully).

  11. Hi Ruth – in terms of themes about children and parents, I think How To Train Your Dragon is an excellent film to compare Brave to so thanks for all the points you made.

    Hi Glen – you also make some terrific points that certainly have made me rethink my response. I did like how Brave finally resolved, but it was still too little too late for me. Maybe I would have been more forgiving if I wasn’t excepting so much from the film or if I didn’t find it all a bit dull and childish. And I think naive is a better way to describe it than innocent!

    Still, I think the film is unfair to Merida. She didn’t seek to do the damage she did, instead the filmmakers chose to portray that as the outcome of her backlash against her mother. I find the idea that she should have only rebelled in a responsible way very problematic. Responsible rebellion sounds like superficial or ineffective rebellion to me. I also find it very problematic that the attitudes of the mother could be defended or excused by saying she’s simply following centuries of tradition as too many repugnant attitudes and actions get defended by arguments surrounding tradition and custom.

    You know, it’s the presentation of the arranged marriage theme that is really the undoing of this film for me. Had the pivotal issue not been so insidious then I probably wound not have minded it nearly so much.

  12. It seems some of the issue here is if arranged marriages are a moral evil. I’m not convinced of that. “Love” and “Marriage” as primarily a voluntary emotional state seems to be much more a modern concern. Love also has the idea of commitment, which is something that can still happen in an arranged marriage.

    Also, I have met people from other cultures that still practice this and they (college students at the time) preferred it. It seems to me that to be moralizing against arranged marriages is a bit culturally insensitive just because it is not how modern western cultures choose mates.

    The arranged marriage in the movie was just a trope common to the cultural period to tell a tale primarily about the balance of freedom vs. responsibility, I really don’t think that was more then a mechanism that the writers did not consider such a moral issue that it would be problematic.

    The movie’s “responsible rebellion” was to point out both sides where wrong in some way. Just because a rebellion may be justified in any context does not justify all the ways the rebels may act. In fact in some cases they may be “throwing the baby out with the bathwater” so to say or have negative consequences they don’t see, just like following tradition for its own sake can. In fact, to have an American movie, with a culture built on “the rebels are always the good guys”, not portray the authorities as entirely bad and absolute freedom as always good seems to me to be creative and counter-cultural.

    In the end both the authorities and the rebel had to learn to listen to each other and know why each side felt as strongly as they did, because both sides reflect something vital in human nature and helpful to human society together.

  13. I was wondering if somebody would bring up the moral relativism argument, which you have explained really well Wesley. I completely disagree and believe that my arguments in the context of this film and the culture that produced it are sound, but thank you for expressing the counter argument with so much clarity and insight.

  14. You know, that is the first time anyone has ever accused me of moral relativism :)

    I have some strong moral principals that I hold are transcendent, but for me, arranged marriage is moral adiaphora. I can respect that if you view it as “insidious”, however, that the movie would be problematic for you, and so find your review reasonable for your principals.

    What is interesting to me is that I have read another review that took the opposite of yours. They didn’t like the movie morally because they felt it was an attack on tradition and was all for doing whatever you want regardless of consequences. It makes me think the movie strove to portray the middle and was probably very balanced. It probably depends on where we put “freedom” in the moral hierarchy.

    But if we have two different worldviews and different value systems we are not really going to be watching the same movie anyway, and I think it is great to analyze movies for their moral and philosophical content, and not just as entertainment.

  15. I can’t believe you guys got into a philosophical logic debate over a Disney Movie. Having said that…

    The Psychology Major’s POV
    I agree with the original author 100%. Why should the child be expected to behave rationally or rebel “the responsible” way when her parents are incapable of discussing the matter calmly, rationally, logically, themselves? If they don’t have those skills, how is it fair to expect the daughter to have developed them? From where? She’s not shown to have any mentors, any friends. It’s just her mother following her around the castle saying, “A princess must be graceful. A princess must not raise her voice.” Her mother didn’t even try to listen, not once, until she was crying and begging for forgiveness. But the mother is shown fawning and adoring over her daughter as a toddler.

    With that kind of blatant conditional love, treating her daughter as an object and not a person, I’m surprised her daughter didn’t rebel sooner. When her daughter had her own thoughts, her own desires, she became tired of her and irritated with her.

    And then the daughter gives in at the end. Only her mother giving in too saves her fate. But HOW can this movie be called Brave when the heroine gives in in the end? Maybe it was meant to be ironic.

    Anyway, I find this movie despicable and I’m upset that I paid $1 to see it at the local dollar theater last night. Complete waste of 185 mill to make this movie.

  16. I think that some of the controversy results from the setting… in a feudal class society the marriage of nobles could possibly prevent war (habsburgs: tu felix austria nube) that could devastate whole countries and result in endless suffering for the commoners on all sides (very much simplified).

    While nobles had a lot of liberties, their children were taken as hostages to be educated at the liege’s home, had to marry and provide taxes and soldiers for any military adventures.

    Commoners on the other hand had a lot more restrictions and were basically rightless. If one chooses a historical setting for advocating human rights, the common girl would have the problems that make such a story interesting… otherwise the setting is a bit… problematic – I thought we were past the heroic figures in history setting, while ignoring all consequences on the broad population.

    If you try to translate the story into a present day setting, it would be like ignoring the girl, which does not know how to feed herself and her family for the next days while you dramatize the rich girl’s sorrow in having – after living carefree and being spoiled for most of her life – once have to do something hopefully unacceptable in modern society and going balistic in the process – hurting herself, her family and her siblings in her quest for getting her head…

    The above was an over-dramatisation of the controversy to make my point – in fact I can relate mostly to the initial post as everyone should be free in his decisions in a modern world.

    But from a morale/message perspective, these elements have not been included neither in the discussion nor the film adequately.

    Now quit ruining my nice movie with intellectual talk and let me enjoy it :D

  17. I think the author hit the nail right on the head for why I didn’t really enjoy this movie. The first act was charming and engaging and then it just fell apart. I can now identify this resulting from two factors. The first is that the morality in the story is inconsistent and misleading. When you get to the bottom line of it, Merida was ultimately punished for rebelling and finding her own path. The second is that it was not the epic adventure that was promised. Everything took place in three settings: the castle, the woods, the henge. With its emphasis on dialogue and a lack of action and settings it unveiled more like a stage play but without the depth or creativity to back it up.

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