Variations on a Queen

Or, “Maybe I’m Just Like My Mother.” Brave is a Pixar movie that doesn’t behave like people want or expect it to. Unmarked spoilers.

Brave merida elinor
I don’t think I really understood Brave when I saw it. I’d been lucky to see a rough cut a few months earlier, and I still went away from the final release thinking, “That wasn’t what I expected.” It’s not just that the movie is unabashedly weird, it’s that it maintains its weirdness while keeping up the appearance of being a completely conventional Disney movie.

It wasn’t until I read an outstanding essay by Lili Loofbourow on The New Inquiry, titled “Just Another Princess Movie”, that I started to really understand it. Not only does that essay explain exactly what it is about Brave that defies expectations, it might be the most insightful thing I’ve read about any Pixar movie. I think the author does herself a little bit of disservice with the preamble, in which she says that growing up having to make do with movies for girls prepared her to look for slight variations on predictable themes, and find the little bits of honesty amidst all the pandering. After all, if all the insight in that piece were just due to her gender, or her exposure to years of mediocre entertainment, then how did so many seasoned film critics, both female and male, manage to completely underestimate the depth and miss the true message of Brave?

Audiences had already reached a consensus on Brave weeks before the movie actually opened: Here was Pixar, the boys club, after years of making movies aimed at boys and dads-who-are-still-boys, finally a wholly-owned Disney subsidiary and finally making a movie with a female protagonist. So of course, she’s a princess. But they split the difference by making her an action princess, so that Disney can sell plastic bows and arrows along with all the dolls and dresses (and wigs!), and not completely alienate the boys in the audience. While technically and artistically beautiful, it’s all a conventional fairy tale story with the standard mixed message socialization inherent to every princess story: “be true to yourself and live your dreams!” and “wouldn’t it be great to be a princess so your life would actually be meaningful?”

I’d read a lengthy and vehement blog post decrying the movie as the death of Pixar’s integrity, based solely on one of the gags from the trailer. And once the movie was actually released, the majority of critics gave it a perfunctory screening and checked it off as their assumptions confirmed.

Jaclyn Friedman in The Guardian laments that “not even the sparkling minds at Pixar can imagine their way out of the princess paradigm.” And Roger Ebert’s almost completely insight-free review ends with this astoundingly misguided conclusion:

But Merida is far from being a typical fairy-tale princess. Having flatly rejected the three suitors proposed by her family, she is apparently prepared to go through life quite happily without a husband, and we can imagine her in later years, a weathered and indomitable Amazon queen, sort of a Boudica for the Scots. “Brave” seems at a loss to deal with her as a girl and makes her a sort of honorary boy.

That’s right, ladies. If you have aspirations that don’t involve settling down with the right man, then you might as well be a boy.

You’ve got to give most of the reviewers a break (well, except Ebert), because the movie practically begs for misinterpretation. As Loofbourow describes it, Brave pulls an elaborate bait-and-switch on the audience starting with the first scene:

…there’s a voiceover at the beginning and the end that goes on about changing your fate and your destiny living within you and whatnot. And that’s fine, and it’s true in complicated ways, but it’s also a classic case of misdirection. By supplying an apparently easy message you barely listen to, the film actually gives the more complex one room to breathe. You might leave unconvinced by the explicit sermon on fate, but quite converted to the quiet redefinition of bravery, barely aware that you’ve been worked on.

The premise, setting, character types, situations, and even entire scenes in Brave are familiar enough for us to accept them without much mental processing. It’s shorthand. We see the princess, and we automatically know basically how the story’s going to play out. She’s an impetuous, free spirit who wants a different life for herself, you know, kind of like Ariel. We get the big, goofy, and kind-hearted dad and the imperious mom who actually keeps everything together. We recognize the King who bears a lifelong grudge against a force of nature like Moby Dick, the contest from Robin Hood, the old witch and the magic spell that goes awry, even the transformation that teaches a mom and daughter to understand each other from Freaky Friday.

We also recognize whenever a story deviates from the standard; we’re used to remakes, re-imaginings, re-interpretations, mash-ups, and twists. She’s not just a princess; she’s an action princess, who can shoot a bow and ride a horse as well as any man!

But I don’t think it’s as simple as that, because I don’t think that Brave is going for the simple change-up. It’s going for myth-making. It roots the story in the familiar to give it the resonance of a new type of fairy tale.

Brave still works on the emotional level that the best Pixar movies do: you don’t understand it so much as feel it. There’s a moment at the end that reliably triggers the tears in me, just like flipping a switch. But it’d be a mistake to assume that there’s nothing more to the movie than our gut response and a collection of familiar ideas from storybooks.

Loofbourow does a great job of highlighting the aspects that distinguish Brave from “just another princess movie;” I wouldn’t do a particularly job of covering those without repetition. I’m most interested in two areas where Brave takes a turn for the unexpected, and those give the story more layers and meaning than even another action princess story.

Ms. Finding Nemo

One of the first signs that Merida isn’t like other Disney princesses is that she has both of her parents. Not only are they both alive, but they both play a crucial role in the story.

Obviously, it’s a story about a mother reconnecting with her teenage daughter. But it’s not simply Finding Nemo for Her. That movie was all about Marlin accepting the fact that his son has to grow up. In Brave, Elinor does end the story having learned that she’s got to respect Merida’s independence and stop being so controlling; as we see her on horseback at the end of the movie, she’s loosened up and learned to appreciate life outside the walls of the castle. Loofbourow makes note of how much significance is embedded in Elinor’s new hairstyle.

But Finding Nemo ultimately wasn’t about Nemo; Brave is about both Merida and Elinor. And at the end, Merida’s changed, too. Her hair might not be any more under control, but she’s more poised. Every time we’ve seen her on horseback in the rest of the movie, it’s been out of escape or rebellion. At the end, she’s not running away. She’s just enjoying the kingdom, right next to the person who represented everything she’d been running away from. The lesson isn’t simply that Elinor had to give Merida the freedom to choose her fate follow her dreams and explore a whole new world and believe in the dreams of imagination. Merida had to learn about responsibility and, to make good on the new title, true bravery.

The first place the movie takes a dramatically weird turn is at the end of the archery contest. Until then, it’d been standard storybook set-up. We can see it all playing out according to schedule, including the impossible bulls-eye finale. But as Loofbourow describes, it’s not even remotely a victory for Merida:

…there is a crowd in that scene, all gasping ecstatically as each silly prince takes his shot, but that crowd does not go wild when Merida wins. This proves not to be the triumphant moment of female empowerment Hollywood likes to deliver when it remembers that women are watching.

The crowd instead does something much more likely: it goes weird.

Things get awkward.

This was the point at which I began to suspect that Pixar was outsmarting me.

Merida doesn’t win anything by winning the contest; in fact, it’s the event that sets off every conflict in the rest of the story. When Robin Hood did it, sure he got outed by the Sheriff of Nottingham, but what’s key is he proved beyond all doubt that he’s the best archer in the kingdom. Merida proved she could out-shoot any man, but it accomplishes nothing apart from alienating everyone.

So you could compare it to one of the best movies of all time, the “women can kick ass too” kung fu comedy Wing Chun. Wing Chun proves she’s a better fighter than any man in her village, but it just results in her becoming a lonely spinster and lots of comical misunderstandings on her course to true love. Know your place, ladies. The patriarchy is preserved! Leave the men’s work to the men.

But Brave spends so much of its time showing how ineffectual the “men’s work” actually is. The warriors spend most of the movie comically bumbling around the castle and occasionally bearing their asses. Later on, when it’s Mor’du-killin’ time: it’s not Fergus, the Bear King, who finally defeats his lifelong enemy; and it’s not Merida’s arrow that undoes her mistake. It’s Elinor, the diplomat, who saves the day. And not even in her “feral” form; she does it in “mom mode,” while protecting her daughter. Merida’s skill at archery isn’t in dispute, but it ultimately doesn’t solve anything. It’s just something she happens to be really good at.

Again, Loofbourow nails it: the movie’s full of storybook examples of bravery, but none of it accomplishes anything. There’s a sense that the time of warriors has passed, and the kingdom is entering the time of diplomats. The type of bravery that interests Brave is shown by Merida, long before the climax at the ring of stones. It’s when she steps up and takes on the responsibility of keeping the kingdom united, even at the risk of losing her freedom.

And Mor’du isn’t just some arbitrary, external villain with no motivation. His back story makes clear how little the story values raw strength. His wish was for the strength of ten men, but it ended tearing apart the kingdom and cursing him for years. He’d lost his humanity and become a monster.

By that measure, it’s too simplistic to look at the relationship between Fergus, Elinor, and Merida as an example of how gender roles work. Saying that Fergus represents the masculine while Elinor represents the feminine might be true, but it’s not particularly interesting.

What’s more interesting is to notice that Fergus represents independence and freedom, while Elinor represents duty and responsibility. The kingdom would fall without the influence of both. And Merida’s strength comes not just from her father, and not just from her mother, but from both parents.

The Witch’s Cottage and the Boys Club

As if it weren’t bad enough that Brave rejects the gender roles and “believe in your dreams!” moral that fairy tale movies are supposed to have, it also ignores the rules about how magic works in these stories. There’s no clear moral or motivation. The supernatural is just weird and alien, and none of it makes sense.

When I first saw the movie, I didn’t really understand what the will-o-the-wisps were all about. I’m still not entirely sure I understand. Are they good or bad? Considering how much the movie’s explicit message is about changing your fate, I’ve got to assume that they function like the wisps in the traditional folk stories: they lead travelers off their current path. They don’t represent good or evil, but change.

It’s not any easier to figure out the Witch’s motivations. When I first heard the story, I thought it was obvious: the Witch was teaching Merida a lesson. Magic in fairy tale stories always has a moral attached: be careful what you wish for. Riches and power don’t guarantee happiness. The real magic lives within you. Always let your conscience be your guide.

When Mor’du went to the Witch and asked for a spell to give him the strength of ten men, she granted that wish, but it came with a cost: he turned into a monster. So when Merida asked for the Witch’s help, the Witch knew that transforming Elinor into a bear would teach them both how valuable their relationship was, and it was only by returning to a state of nature that they’d realize how much they depend on civilization, and…

…and wait, that doesn’t really make sense at all. The final version of the first scene in the cottage makes it pretty clear that this isn’t a wicked old witch, or a kindly Fairy Godmother, or even a genie teaching Merida about the ironic downside to magic spells. It’s pretty clear that she’s just a crazy old woman with a bizarre fixation on bears.

Merida’s first discovery of the cottage isn’t played up with skulls, chains, and cobwebs like the Wicked Queen. And it’s not played for laughs, like the goofy anachronisms of Merlin’s magic in The Sword in the Stone. It’s more like, well, a more comical version of The Shining. What is all this stuff? Did I really see that? What does it mean?! It’s all just weird. It’s even more unsettling for the audience than it is for Merida, because Merida’s not going in with as many assumptions about how these situations are supposed to play out.

(The scene works so well, in fact, that it kind of ruins a clever gag later on in the Witch’s hut. Using potions as a medieval voice-mail menu would be a perfectly fine referential joke in any other Pixar movie; it’s exactly the kind of gag that the Toy Story movies use in the background. In Brave, though, it’s just kind of jarring, because everything else in the film works in fairy tale language, not “their world is a lot like ours” language).

One of the things that’s been lost from all the attempts to modernize fairy tales is the simple fact that magic isn’t supposed to make sense. It’s supposed to be alien, dangerous, and unpredictable. An ambivalent witch is somehow creepier that one who’s downright malicious — Merida discovers that solving her problem isn’t as simple as just sewing a tapestry back together. Without an identifiable villain to defeat and an understandable spell to break, the solution is a lot more mature and a lot less predictable. It requires understanding, not magic.

More than anything else, that’s what moves Brave away from being “just another Disney fairy tale” and squarely back into Pixar territory. Ultimately, it’s character that drives the story, not magic. We should be skeptical of any plot development that reduces to “a wizard did it,” and we should be skeptical of any story with an easily-digestible moral. Pixar movies have always seemed to have a focus on honesty — the gags in Toy Story come from nostalgia and a recognition that “this is how this world would really work.” The emotional moments in Finding Nemo come from giving two fish the emotions of a father and son. The comedy in Up comes from having a kid who really behaves like a kid, and dogs that really think like dogs, whether or not they can fly planes and talk.

Over the years I’ve grown to appreciate the importance of representation in the media. (If TV had more than just Paul Lynde and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, it would’ve made my 20s and early 30s go a lot more smoothly). But I never gave much credence to the allegation that Pixar’s movies have been too male-dominated. I’ve never gotten the impression that Pixar was making movies for boys or for girls; it’s just always seemed that they’re going for stories that are universal.

I’m not a dad, but I still found myself bawling at Finding Nemo. I’ve never lost (or had) a spouse, but I still found myself bawling at Up. They’ve always seemed more focused on honesty than on demographics.

It’s fantastic for girls to be able to recognize themselves in a hero of a well-made movie. When I was at Walt Disney World, I loved seeing some girls lining up to get an autograph from Merida, and other girls carrying around toy bows and arrows. But after seeing so much preoccupation with what message the movie is sending to girls, I have to wonder whether people put more emphasis on the message than on the honesty underneath it. Are we selling princesses too hard, or are we telling them that it’s wrong to be so wrapped up in “princess stuff,” and they have to be interested in archery and horseback riding if they want to be interesting?

I’ve been deliberately staying ignorant of the details behind the production of Brave, so I’m not even going to speculate about how difficult it is for women to get into feature animation. And I don’t for a second believe it’s necessary to have a female protagonist or female director to make a movie with a female protagonist that has the kind of “honesty” I’m talking about. So hopefully it won’t be long before female characters are so commonplace that there’s no need to make such an issue of it.

Then we can change the focus from what message are we sending to girls and look deeper into the question of what message we’re sending to kids — okay, adults and, incidentally, any kids who happen to be in the audience. A simple twist on a stereotype isn’t much better than the stereotype itself. Saying “believe in yourself” isn’t considerably more helpful than “find the right magic spell.” The review of Brave in the Guardian says that Pixar makes movies about toys, bugs, monsters, cars, fish, super-heroes, rats, robots, talking dogs, and now princesses; I say they’ve always just been in the business of making movies about people.

1 thought on “Variations on a Queen”

  1. Excellent article. I haven’t yet seen Brave, but the more articles I read like this, and the one by Lili Loofborouw the more I want to.

    I am not surprised by the Grauniad “reviewer” being a talentless hack, it seems to be an affliction in the British media and it isn’t a new phenomena, but I am a bit surprised that Ebert didn’t get the message of the film as presented here and by Loofborouw – he was usually a bit smarter than that.

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