Ubiquitous, beloved and dangerous, animated fairy tales are more than just opportunities to sell toy tiaras to the tune of millions; they are typically the first encounters women have with the reinforcement of an oppressive patriarchal social structure, and their mothers are often the ones innocently opening the window to let in this boogeyman.
Consider the dynamic in nearly every classic Disney tale: beautiful young girl X must fight (and often kill) ugly old woman Y until she is saved by or professes love for muscular man Z, usually in a kingdom ruled by someone with a “scepter.” As “spunky” as these heroines may appear, with their occasional dollop of sass and sporadic assertion of, at best, mild independence, they still adhere to the idea that no woman is complete without a husband and the real enemy is always other women.
Enter Pixar’s Brave, perhaps the most progressive and intelligent fairy tale ever available for mothers and daughters to share (and for sons and fathers to appreciate, too). Beginning with a badly misunderstood prologue that has been the bizarre target of thick-headed critics, Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson) is shown raising her daughter, Merida (Kelly Macdonald), to act like a “princess.” Unlike simpler movies, this doesn’t mean Merida longs to engage in some specific hobby or meet the boy of her dreams; it means that Elinor is explicitly instructing her to couch her opinions, hide any semblance of masculinity and extinguish her identity.
Years later, Merida’s suitor is to be chosen by an archery competition. Despite Elinor’s admonitions, Merida grabs a bow, rips off the trappings of the culturally-demanded dress that physically binds her and proceeds to outperform every man there. Translation: This is not a girl who needs saving, thank you very much. And unlike, say, Disney’s Mulan, Merida is not forced to conceal her femininity when displaying masculine traits. She pops those targets as an observable female. While her father, King Fergus (Billy Connolly), is entertained, her mother is offended, having been forced to confront the fallacy of male superiority she has spent her life defending. That’s right, this is not a movie with one lovely young protagonist but the journey of two women.
What happens next has been hidden in previews, which has vexed reviewers who have bemoaned the shift into magic and fantasy as narratively inconsistent or deceptive marketing. Not so much. The trailers keyed in on Merida’s conflict with her mother, which is exactly what the movie delivers, to the point where there is no love interest and no heroic supporting cast member to swoop in and save these helpless ladies. There isn’t even a subplot. This is a laser-focused exploration of women who must rely on themselves to overthrow the “old way” of doing things.
That’s the real villain of this piece: misogynistic tradition. And once they realize who they are actually fighting against, it is given the physical form of a giant, scarred bear who used to be a Scottish warrior. Without treading into spoilers, the final image is a brilliant contrast. A tapestry is sown by two women to replace an earlier one they destroyed. In the original, a traditional and stoic family appears, with a “brave” husband guarding his wife and daughter. In the revision, it’s an all girls’ club; the men have been stitched out. And not only does Merida not wind up with a mate, there is every indication that a glimpse into her future would reveal a warrior queen seated beside an empty throne.
There is an inexplicable critical divide occurring, often from people who should be defending this movie. Some are dismissive for reasons they struggle to articulate, likely due to an inherent and unrecognized resistance to what they see as a perversion of a male-dominated norm. Those who are smart enough to appreciate it are sometimes unwilling to reward it for presenting “Feminism 101,” arguing that a movie should not be praised for simply showing fundamental equality. The failure of the former position is obvious, but the latter is just as silly. For a film intended to reach a younger audience, “Feminism 101” is more than appropriate and can’t be found anywhere else.
Just as Prometheus was blasted for daring to infuse a sci-fi action piece with philosophical overtones, Brave may fail to receive its due for challenging standard princess fare. What can’t be debated is the breathtaking animation, which extends beyond Merida’s much-talked-about curly locks. The action is graceful and thrilling to the point where the audience is convinced that characters who ought to be untouchable are in genuine mortal danger. And the humor, which has also been critiqued as simplistic (as though other beloved Pixar films have had complex vaudevillian wordplay and not sight gags), is more than capable of breaking tension when needed.
Brave is essential viewing for boys and girls (not to mention their parents), not only because it is quality entertainment but because the implicit lessons it contains are so liberating. Covert pop culture reinforcement of societal norms are the hardest to identify, hardest to challenge and easiest to dismiss. Brave hits a bull’s eye that pierces this content once (upon a time) and for all.
Grade = A+