Brave is Pixar's first Disney Princess movie. Put another way, Brave is what results when the incredibly bright people at Pixar apply their collective cool intelligence to the idea of a Disney Princess movie.
We all know the Disney template. Beautiful young princess--usually mother-less--meets her Prince Charming, but first has to defeat a Wicked Old Crone, before living happily ever after. It's a template suited for gender relations ca. 1955, mock-worthy sexist nonsense masquerading as romantic fantasy, and yet, because of the extraordinary beauty of the animation and the music and the voice talents employed, seduously seductive.
This is not to say I don't like those films. I love those films, especially all the Alan Menken musicals following The Little Mermaid, and continuing onward: Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Pocahontas, Hercules, Tangled. Yes, I even liked Pocahontas, despite the frankly atrocious way it distorted that particular, essentially tragic, American origin story. "Colors of the wind" may have been reassuring New Age silliness--the noble savage myth writ large--but it's a gorgeously animated scene, in a lovely movie.
But it's time we moved beyond Disney Princesses. And Disney knew it too; hence, the movie Enchanted, which delightfully deconstructed Disney Princess movies, mocking the idea that love at first sight could, in one day, lead to happiness ever after. In a movie in which the heroine meets her True Love and, in one day, falls in love, leading to happily ever after. They baked a charmingly irreverent cake. And then ate it too. (Thanks to wickedly spot-on performances by Amy Adams and James Marsden, whose delightfully empty-headed Prince Charming steals every scene in which he appears.) It's the Disney Princess icon subverted, but that subversion is also contained, even reified.
But now, Pixar does a Princess movie. And here's what they did: they took princesses seriously. They rooted the movie in the reality of actual medieval princesses. And it's brilliant.
The fact is, an actual princess had one main job; dynastic marriage. Her job was not to find Troo Luv, and it wasn't to live happily ever after. It was to prevent war. What an actual princess needed was training in the arts of persuasion, diplomacy, in the political utility of traditional femininity. And the person providing that training pretty much had to be her mother.
So the entire movie, all of it, centers on the relationship between Princess Merida, and her mother, Queen Elinor. And Merida's a difficult pupil. She doesn't want to be charmingly, sweetly, feminine. She wants to ride her horse really fast while shooting at targets with her bow and arrows. She likes climbing sheer cliff faces. She's a physical, active, athletic young woman, impetuous and fool-hardily brave. She is also, of course, a wonderfully appealing character, especially as voiced by the brilliant Scottish actress Kelly McDonald. She's also driving her mother (superbly voiced by Emma Thompson) crazy.
Our sympathies are with Merida. But Elinor's right. What this strong, loving, queenly mother is trying so desperately to teach her daughter are basic concepts of adulthood: responsibility, duty, the sense of some larger obligations than her own pleasures and preferences.
King Fergus (the wonderful Billy Connolly), is a great Dad, bluff, strong, a man of immense appetites, who finds humor in everything, a big overgrown kid. Elinor admits having had reservations when she had to marry, but there's no question of the bond she shares with her lovably buffoonish husband. She has found true love, and she is living happily ever after. But to accomplish that required patience and sacrifice and hard work. And Merida doesn't want any part of any of it.
And the stakes are high. We're told that Fergus is king over four clans, his, plus three other clan chieftains who aren't terribly interested in being ruled. Each has an oldest son, and Fergus, an oldest daughter. She must marry one of those sons, or civil war beckons. Granted, the rival chieftains are presented comically, as half-savage dunces. And the three potential suitors are pretty funny, a comically unprepossessing lot.
You know the formula: we'll meet the three suitors, and they'll all be doofuses, and then Merida will meet Her One True Love, but someone unsuitable, and that'll be the obstacle, which will work itself out in the end. But that never happens. There is no good suitor. True love does not beckon.
Instead Merida turns her mother into a bear.
Sorry. Oops. Spoiler alert, guys. My bad. . . .
But it's really brilliant. Because isn't that what children think of their parents' demands? My Mom's such a bear! She's such a beast to me! Elinor the bear embodies all her daughter's worst imaginings, the unfairness of making her demands of me, of making me wear a dress and brush my hair, and . . . be a Princess, the person I have to become, for reasons of state, to prevent war and violence.
Of course, Merida does come to realize how much her mother loves her, and she does become the diplomat we've already seen, so superbly, in her mother. And her mother lightens up too. Things do all work out. But not before the movie has explored, in tenderness and with great insight and intelligence, one of the best mother and daughter relationships I've ever seen in a film. No romantic ending here--it would simply get in the way.
Of course, the movie's gorgeous. Merida's marvelous shock of long curly red hair is a triumph of state of the art animation--my wife and I wondered how many animators were responsible for just that hair. The movie includes three musical montage scenes, and the music--contemporary Celtic, of course--is stunningly beautiful. Not a Pixar thing, really, those montages, but it's a Disney Princess movie, of course it has to have wonderful music. Merida has three little brothers, triplets, who steal the show, along with all their castle's cookies--they introduced an impish humor to a movie rich in comedy anyway. (I especially loved this detail--one of the suitors, who speaks in so thick a Scottish accent that his every line is unintelligible; props to voice actor Kevin McKidd).
Back in the early nineties, Disney animation went on a roll; all those glorious Menken musicals. Pixar's roll is greater, and has lasted much longer. It's gotten to the point where the one movie I most long for, every movie season, is the new Pixar. And now, with Brave, they've raised the bar higher than ever. It's not just gloriously beautiful, it's smart and human and real. Its the best Princess movie ever, because it's the first to take the job of Princess as seriously as it deserves.