Brave, in my opinion, takes the best parts of Disney and the best parts of Pixar and combines them into one amazing achievement of animation. Disney and Pixar have been united since 2006, but this is the first “princess” movie that involves both Disney and Pixar (Tangled and Princess and the Frog were entirely Disney produced and distributed). I hope that the themes explored in Brave will carry through to the future Disney Princess films, for five very simple reasons.
(There are minor spoilers for the film in general, but not for the plot or ending specifically. Read at your own risk!)
1) Merida acts her age.
Aside from Merida, the only Disney female I can think of who consistently acts her age is Alice (in Wonderland). Many princesses–especially the classic or early princesses such as Snow White, Aurora or Ariel–are overly naïve or innocent for their age. Many of the modern princesses, like Mulan, Tiana and Belle, are forced to act beyond their years–often as a result of growing up to quickly and taking care of themselves or (in the case of Belle), their parents.
Merida, however, is a teenager to her very bone. (To be fair, Ariel is very teenaged when she’s under the sea, but once she reaches land her entire character becomes much more innocent and ignorant, largely because of culture shock, but it still affects the way her character is developed). Anyone who has either raised a teenager or been one themselves can recognize Merida’s unique talent of taking one syllable words like “Mum” and “Dad” and turning them into epic ten or twelve syllable moans of complaint, embarrassment and frustration.
Merida is a genuine, flawed, authentic young girl. Disney is filled with genuine, authentic characters, but Merida is one who actually acts like a teenager. She’s the kind of character that other girls can recognize parts of themselves in, even as they recognize aspects of their own mother (or father) in Elinor.
2) There’s no romance.
Of course, there’s peripheral romance between Queen Elinor and King Fergus, and there are some romantic undertones in the plot (the catalyst is, after all, when Elinor decides that Merida needs to choose a bethrothed), but for the most part Brave is the journey between a mother and a daughter. The male characters are (with the exception of Fergus and Merida’s adorably evil triplet baby brothers) unimportant–they’re background characters.
— Charles Lee (@Goofyfan_Chuck) June 27, 2012
Lack of romance (slash a Prince Charming) is really rare–even in a children’s film. Even Wall-E had romance! It was cute and innocent, because they were robots, but it was there. Merida has absolutely no interest in marrying the three suitors her parents have chosen for her, but it’s not because she has her eye on someone else. She’s just not interested in being pushed into marriage with a boy she barely knows–in the life her mother picked out for her. Merida’s age is unstated, but I saw her as around fifteen. Old enough to have independence, young enough to balk at marriage, and definitely old enough to no longer be her mother’s sweet little child.
I love what I think of as the “modern” Disney princesses–Mulan, Rapunzel, Tiana, even Kida from Atlantis. They’re a step away from the simple, archetypal characters that populate the “classic” princess films, such as Snow White, Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella. Their personalities and values are more in line with 21st century women… even if their stories take place in 1920s New Orleans or 1st century China. However all these ladies have on thing in common: a prince charming. A love interest. A charming, handsome man who they move heaven and Earth (and, in the case of Rapunzel and Flynn, defy life and death) to be with. In Brave, the relationship that Merida moves heaven and Earth to save is the one she has with her mother. Not a bespelled prince she met less than a week ago, not a stranger she barely knows but with whom she has shared a meaningful adventure. Not even a man she has fought alongside in battle. Her mother. It is one of the most beautiful messages I have ever seen in a film, Disney or otherwise.
3) Merida’s sexuality is an open-ended question
Lots of people have written (mostly positively) about the question of Merida’s ambiguous sexuality. (And let it be said that I have just hit a new record of links to articles about the possible homosexuality of a Disney character). Whether Merida is a lesbian or not is beside the point, because of the lack of romance in her story, but it’s the first time Disney (or Pixar) have left the question of a protagonist’s sexuality so open-ended.
Of course the oft-cited reasons that back up the theory that Merida is a lesbian don’t hold any water (because a 15 year old who doesn’t want to get married and prefers to shoot archery and ride a horse is clearly a lesbian, not just an obstinate, athletic teenager).
Tiana made history as the first African-American Disney princess, in the same way that Pocohontas made history as the first Native American princess. I (personally) don’t think that Merida was meant to be a lesbian, because in my opinion she is a 100% unsexualized character, but I do believe that the day is coming (probably within my lifetime, probably not until I start having kids in 10 or so years), that Disney or Pixar will create a film with, at the very least, an openly gay character, if not an openly gay princess. And Merida, for her part, is helping to pave the way.
4) Merida is a member of an average family
Quick poll: what is Disney known for? That’s right, killing parents. At the very least it’s unbelievably rare for a Disney character to a) have two living parents and b) be raised by both of them. Think about it! Ariel: single father. Cinderella: orphan. Snow White: orphan. Jasmine: single father. Aladdin: orphan. Bambi: single father. Dumbo: single mother. Simba: single mother and he’s an outcast. Lilo: orphan. Belle: single father. Pocahontas: single father. Tiana: single mother. Rapunzel: raised away from her parents. Aurora has the double whammy of having a single father and being raised away from him. I could go on and on. Aside from Merida, the only Disney characters I can think of who were raised by two parents are Wendy and Mulan. And Wendy’s impact is lessened given that Peter Pan probably has the largest concentration of orphans in any Disney movie ever.
Disney is great at creating role models for single parent families (and the complexities of 21st century orphaned families, like in Lilo and Stitch), but Brave is the first film that says “hey, this is how an average family functions.” It’s not pretty, and people cry and shout, but that’s just life. If I had a nickel for every time my mother and I got into a shouting match between the ages of 13 and 18, I’d probably have, like, 20 bucks. Merida’s family might live in 10th century Scotland, but their arguments ring true to 21st century life (except for the arranged marriage bit, which, granted, is still common in parts of the world, but it’s a whole lot rarer now than it was a thousand years ago).
5) The animation
Okay, so I adore hand-drawn animation, and a little part of me does die when I watch Tangled because it feels so strange to follow this Disney princess with the big green eyes and know that she’s computer animated, as opposed to hand-animated like all the other princesses I adore. But strangely enough when you add “Pixar” in front of Disney’s name, I’m totally okay with computer animation, because it feels less like Disney is betraying their roots and more like they’re moving forward into the 21st century and partnering with the company that–I would argue–pioneered beautiful computer animation that doesn’t look like Mickey Mouse Clubhouse.
If you’ve seen the trailer, you know how gorgeous Merida’s hair is. But while Merida’s hair stole the show, there are smaller, quieter pieces of animation that flesh out the film in a new way. The first thing that comes to mind is (spoilers!) the way Elinor’s character and humanity is evident even when she’s a bear: her modesty, her kind eyes and her desire for etiquette even when she and Merida are just eating berries in the woods. And yet all of that easily drops away when she goes wild. Brave is not only a masterpiece of storytelling, it’s a masterpiece of animation.
When you include La Luna, the spectacular short that preceded Brave, which was partially computer animated and partially hand drawn (the background was drawn almost entirely pastel), Pixar’s influence in Disney’s future animation can only go up from here.
In conclusion, if I don’t get a stuffed baby bear I will literally die.