Snow White, Cinderella, Ariel, Belle, Jasmine, and Pocahontas’ mothers are dead. Aurora is essentially an orphan, though her three fairy caretakers do their best to raise her well. Mother Gothel isn’t really Rapunzel’s mother, but she pretends to be so she can live off her magic hair. (They have issues.) Mulan and Tiana’s mothers are at least present even if their fathers’ presence or lack thereof seems to have a stronger impact on their lives.
Merida has a mother, Queen Elinor, and their tempestuous relationship is at the center of Brave’s story. That Brave explores the mother/daughter dynamic makes it remarkably different than every other Disney princess movie that has come before. The ways in which Brave explores and develops this relationship make it more affirming and respectful of women and their importance and value to society than almost anything I’ve ever seen in a theater.
Brave is a fantastic movie. It is funny and exciting and moving and beautiful to watch and truthful about the nature of life. In other words, it’s a Pixar movie, and it is a Pixar movie of the same caliber as their best work. There is nothing outside of Pixar to compare it to. Pixar once again proves they are the best in the movie business now and perhaps the best studio the movie business has ever known.
Disney princess movies have long given lip service to the idea of women of volition. Ariel wants to explore “the world up above.” Belle is a “beautiful but funny girl” who likes to read and rebuffs the town hunk. Jasmine wants to choose her own suitor and see the world. Pocahontas wants to run through the fields and forest much more than she wants to marry her warrior intended. Brave‘s Merida, up to this point, is right in line with these other princesses. They would all get along great through the first thirds of each of their respective movies.
Then every other Disney princess gives up her will for a guy – Ariel spends her days playing pretend with a statue of Eric, Belle’s favorite part of her book is when the girl meets the prince in disguise, Jasmine goes on a magic carpet ride with Aladdin, and Pocahontas’ destiny is revealed to be John Smith. Time and time again, the fulfillment of a woman’s life in Disney’s fairy tales is with a man. This is a very safe motif for Disney to adopt, because it is the same idea that has run through almost all civilizations throughout history.
Brave dares to be different. Brave critiques this notion of a woman’s worth that runs unchallenged through all of Disney’s other fairy tales. Brave suggests that a woman’s worth might be independent of her marital status, and it teases this idea out through a conflict between Merida and her mother in which neither party is completely right or wrong. Both parties have to move from their radical extremes to a more moderate and tension-filled middle where together they can figure out a new way for their society to work.
Both Merida and Elinor have to change if either their kingdom or their relationship is going to continue, and a witch’s magic, in true fairy tale fashion, sparks their transformation. However, in true Pixar fashion, it is magic of a deeper kind than that cooked up in cauldrons that finally makes Merida and Elinor’s journey complete. This deeper magic effects greater change in the lives of those who encounter it. It exists both in the computer generated and flesh and blood worlds. It makes beauties of beasts. It reanimates lifeless hearts. It is repentance. It is selflessness. It is love.
True, self-giving love is at the core of Brave and, it seems, at the core of Pixar. This love allows the studio to make truly challenging, family friendly animated films, because Pixar seems to trust in the power of self-giving love to prove their stories true. So we have Woody trying finally to return Buzz to Andy even if it means he, Woody, is left behind. Wall-E pushes EVE’s hand away in favor of completing the “directive.” Carl lets Ellie and his balloon levitated house go so he can be the father figure Russell needs. Andy passes his playthings along.
Pixar’s films, whether they star bugs or monsters or fish or cars or rats, consistently call us to be better people, to be the kind of people who love others more than ourselves, who put our families, friends, greater communities, and even, often, our enemies ahead of us.
And what specifically does Merida call us to? How would Brave better remake our world? Well, you’ll just have to go see Brave to find out. It is too wonderful a movie for me to risk spoiling anything here.