Girls, according to pretty much all my friends who have daughters, are much more challenging to raise than boys. A big practical part of that struggle, of course, is teaching tween and young teen girls to be aware of the very real dangers that they face as they become intoxicated with the perceived power of their own attractiveness to males of the species. It’s a tough task in a society that still, in spite of all the efforts of the women’s movement, places so much emphasis on physical beauty over other talents as a woman’s raison d’etre.
And girls pick up on that social message at a very early age. All you have to do is walk down the aggressively pink aisles of a big-box toy store or check out how four-year-olds are costumed for trick-or-treating to know that a huge proportion of young girls center their fantasy lives on being princesses. The ‘50s may be long over, and their mothers may need to work two jobs for the family to make ends meet; but for all too many girls, the fluffy dream of living happily ever after being rescued, married and validated by a prince has not yet died. All you need, Disney movies seem to say, is a tiny waist and the right dress.
So I expect that worried mothers of daughters across the land must be pleased and relieved to see that the House of Mouse – now the owner and not just the collaborator of Pixar – has finally, finally come out with a princess movie where the perfect arranged marriage is the last thing that the heroine wants. Once you get past the cognitive dissonance of wondering why the heir to an 11th-century Scottish throne would be named after a city in the Yucatan, there’s little left to quibble about in the role model offered up by Disney/Pixar in the person of the feisty Princess Merida in the studio’s latest animated offering, Brave.
The movie pays homage to the well-worn fantasy-lit trope of the headstrong redhead who’s handy with a bow, but this one, thankfully, doesn’t get tamed by a man in the end. What gives Brave extra depth is the fact that Merida’s character growth doesn’t end with adolescent rebelliousness; this is really a story about transcending that stage and learning to befriend your own parents again, after you’ve established your separate identity from them. While rejecting the social roles decreed for her by longstanding tradition, Merida – spiritedly voiced by Kelly MacDonald (Trainspotting, Gosford Park, No Country for Old Men) – makes some bad choices and then has to set the unintended consequences, magical and political, to rights.
Merida’s primary antagonist is her own mother, Queen Elinor, who drills her constantly in appropriate princessly behavior and keeps her literally straitlaced in a corset and tight gown that may be anachronistic for the period, but still serve admirably as metaphors for rigid societal expectations of women. For a happy ending, the queen’s attitude will require some adjustment along with Merida’s – and change she does, big-time, though I will avoid spoilers for those who haven’t already deduced a certain central plot point from the trailers for Brave. The amazing Emma Thompson, who seems to be the busiest actress in England in recent years, carries a lot of the film’s dramatic weight in her portrayal of Elinor. Billy Connolly is also excellent in the more comedic role of Merida’s tough-but-doting Dad, King Fergus.
Much has been made of the fact that Brave’s screenwriter/director Brenda Chapman was replaced in midstream by the studio with Mark Andrews, due to “artistic differences.” But the movie still represents a milestone as Pixar’s first feature with a female protagonist, and its Girl Power message doesn’t seem to have suffered much for the change of directorship. Merida is cool enough, and there’s enough other fun stuff going on in the form of goofy suitors and hellraising younger brothers, that boys in the audience should not have any trouble finding something to like about this flick (my son loved it). Nor will adult viewers feel bored by “kiddie fare”: The exquisite visuals, evoking the spooky, primitive beauty of actual locations in Scotland, are alone worth the price of admission, and the soundtrack will entrance anyone with a soft spot for Celtic music.
But mostly, I suspect, it will be mother/daughter pairs who will take Brave to their hearts, seeing in it an echo of the difficulties and rewards of their own complicated relationships. This well-made film deserves a niche high in the pantheon of great animation – and, one hopes, bodes promisingly for a trend not only toward more female leads in Pixar films, but also more narratives about the trials and triumphs of human beings, instead of the bugs, fish, rats, toys, cars and robots who populated the studio’s early output. Even better, it gives us reason to expect that future Disney products will strive to inspire more creative aspirations in young girls than the acquisition of a ballgown, a tiara and a pension. Meanwhile, organizing some bake sales and car washes to raise funds for girls’ archery programs in our cash-strapped middle schools might be a good place to start.