Review: What Does It Mean To Be “Brave”?


In every child’s life comes a moment in which he or she realizes parents are human beings too–neither infallible nor invulnerable, nor unreasoning. And whatever their actions, they might well have our best interests at heart.

And in middle-class America, every woman must decide how to balance the traditional demands of womanhood (for many, husband, home, family) with the demands of her own life (for many, career, goals, freedom).

At the crossroads of these ideas stands Pixar’s “Brave,” its first movie with a female heroine, and one of the only movies I have ever seen, of any kind, that is focused on a woman’s relationship with another woman without much reference to any man.

I didn’t know the plot of the movie before I saw it, for once, because the previews don’t really give you any idea of what the plot is. I can tell you with no spoilers that although the movie does indeed focus on Merida, a wild-red-headed Scottish princess with a bow, it mainly concerns her conflict-filled relationship with her mother, Elinor.

Had the movie not been a Pixar film, Queen Elinor could easily have ended up a flat character, a paper-thin semblance of motherhood: Don’t do this, don’t do that, be a perfect lady. Oh, how smug and perfect she could have been!

As it is, there are enough tantalizing glimpses of Elinor’s own struggles to be the perfect woman–a yamato nadeshiko, Scotland style–to let us know that she has her own doubts about ladyhood. Pixar doesn’t belabor the point, though–there’s just a throwaway line here and there and a bit of a hint from the first scene of the film that only seems clear in retrospect.

And Merida’s stubbornness and Elinor’s stubbornness turn into the classic parental clash.

When her parents want Merida to marry a son of one of the three local lords in order to cement the alliance between them, Merida rebels and seeks a magical solution to get Elinor to change her mind about the marriage. The spell, offered by a helpful witch, does indeed change Elinor’s mind, but not in the way Merida intended, and the princess has to find a way to reverse the spell before it becomes permanent, as the concerns about arranged marriage fade into the background a bit.

It sounds like your standard fairy tale, and had Merida been a boy, or had the movie focused on the suitors or proffered a SOP, perfunctory romance, it might have been. But it doesn’t. It would have been so easy to slip into the cliches of the genre (which plenty of still-great movies do–Aladdin, the Little Mermaid, etc. etc.).

“Brave,” much like its heroine, paves its own path and finds its own balance.