Thoughts on BRAVE (Spoilers)

I just saw Pixar’s new movie, BRAVE. It’s been at the top of my must-see list for a long time because although Pixar makes excellent movies, they’d never made one starring a girl or woman before. I couldn’t wait to see Merida, an amazing archer with wild red hair, save the day.

First, I must say that the movie is gorgeous — absolutely stunning. It’s the first animated movie I’ve seen that, in my opinion, rivals the work of Miyazaki. I could stare at each frame for days and it would still take my breath away. Truly, the animators outdid themselves and I am still in awe of what they accomplished.

SPOILERS BELOW THIS POINT

Here’s what BRAVE is:

The thrilling story of a young girl trapped in a life she doesn’t want by her controlling mother. In an attempt to “change her fate,” she asks a witch to change her mother, hoping that her mother will no longer want her to marry someone she doesn’t love. The spell goes wrong, as these sorts of spells always do, and Merida spends the rest of the movie trying to undo the horrible thing she has done. In the process, she and her mother finally learn to understand each other and begin to compromise. [SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER] In fact, it is critical to the story that Merida’s mother becomes more fierce and fights, and that Merida does something ladylike and stitches.

It’s a wonderful story, and it’s filled with humor and danger and many moments where I was holding my breath, worried that something terrible would happen. I love that the two main characters are women and that the story is about their relationship with each other. If this had been one of Pixar’s many movies starring girls and women, I would have enjoyed every last bit of it.

But it’s not. It’s the first one. And as such, it made me sad and kind of angry.

Here’s what BRAVE isn’t:

The thrilling story of a young girl who saves her people or her world, or even her family. Nor is it the story of a girl who uses her amazing skill at archery (which she earned every bit of) to do something useful like kill a bad guy or snap the right rope at just the right moment or to signal the reinforcements. She doesn’t go on an adventure, she doesn’t explore the world, and she doesn’t learn any great truths except that her mother loves her and that she loves her mother, too. The movie’s title led me astray. BRAVE makes me think of adventure, and I didn’t really see one here.

Now, try to picture a Pixar movie where a boy stars in that plot. Where his father is making him marry someone he doesn’t want to marry so he finds a witch and wishes for something horrible, then has to make it right. The whole story is about his relationship with his father. You know what? You’re never going to see that movie. Because to Pixar, boys are heroes and girls — when they exist outside of boys — need to overcome the fact that they’re girls. Compromise, not bravery, is the key.

So yes, I was frustrated and sad during the movie. The story they chose to tell is told extremely well… it’s just not the direction they should have gone in, in my opinion. Not for the first movie with a female lead. Merida is a fantastic character and she deserved a better fate than this one.


Comments

Julie 5 years ago .

“She doesn’t go on an adventure, she doesn’t explore the world, and she doesn’t learn any great truths except that her mother loves her and that she loves her mother, too.”

Out of all the things that bothered me about the movie, this was the biggest. Despite all the beauty of the Scottish Highlands and the excitement we’re supposed to feel when she drinks the fire water or whatever, I was struck by how claustrophobic the whole movie felt. It seems to me that she travels only a few miles until she gets to the mysterious circle of stones, which she’s obviously never seen before–and then she never travels much further than that. Meanwhile, Wall-e gets to ride a rocket to space.

    Jenn Reese 5 years ago .

    Yes! It was so strange that she’s actually more adventurous and brave *before* the movie gets underway. When she climbs the mountain and drinks from the waterfall, I thought OH, YEAH! BRING IT! But that’s the last we see of exploration. The new territory that discovered in the movie is because of the wisps, and not because of Merida’s nature.

Virginia 5 years ago .

I was going to take my kids tomorrow. Girls age 12 and 11. Boys age 8,6,3. I hadn’t told them yet. But we’ll head for the water park instead because you know what? I don’t need to spend $42 (even the matinee is 7 bucks here) and then try to undue the damage. And my ‘undoing’ would be a lot less clear than your explanation, and they probably wouldn’t even listen. We’ve seen the trailers. It definitely looked like an adventure movie.

Sad.

    Jenn Reese 5 years ago .

    They would probably still enjoy it — everyone in our theater did — but that’s kind of the problem, right? We aren’t even aware when we’re getting messages like this most of the time. It’s so systemic at this point. It really is a good movie for what it wants to be, though.

    Have fun at the water park!

Jennifer 5 years ago .

Hm. I admit, BRAVE was not what I expected. Based on title and trailer, I guess I thought she’d like… Run away, fight a dragon, save a kingdom? And I was sort of resigned to seeing this cookie-cutter actiony plot, only with a girl. I was not particularly excited to see it, because I figured I knew what it was going to be. But…air conditioning. So. I went.

I had a very different experience than you, I guess, because I was charmed, relieved and delighted. The direction they took the story might have been “smaller” in ways than I expected, but at the same time it was, for me, much more INTERESTING and relevant. She doesn’t necessarily “save the kingdom,” in the big way… But she does get to be free, and buck tradition, and decide for HERSELF what her adulthood will look like and what being a Princess (or a Queen) means.

I don’t see how that is a bad fate?

    Jenn Reese 5 years ago .

    I agree with you on many points, and I do think that I would have loved this movie had it not been the first girl-led film from Pixar. I did find it charming, and I was genuinely touched by Merida’s relationship with her mother.

    However, I felt like Pixar couldn’t make a girl-led movie without it being about the fact that she was a girl. As if the only time you need a girl main character is when the story is about being a girl… not when you just want a hero or a brave kid.

    I’m not explaining this well at all, and I apologize. Maybe it’s like getting an issue book (where the issue is being female) instead of the mainstream adventure I was craving. There are almost no kids’ movies where girls star in adventures — I can think of no animated cookie-cutter actiony movies where that happens — so I haven’t gotten near my fill of those yet. I was hoping this would be the first, and it wasn’t.

    EDITED TO ADD: Except for Miyazaki. Without him and Studio Ghibli, we’d be without animated girl adventure movies. (And Ghibli movies aren’t exactly mainstream most of the time.)

      Eugene 5 years ago .

      I’m trying to think of a U.S. animated film that fits the bill and the best I can come up with is Quest for Camelot. I’ve only seen it once, in theaters a long time ago, and I recall not liking it very much. So that’s not much of a recommendation. I haven’t seen the film adaptation of CITY OF EMBER, but it seems like that would be a possibility, and of course there are classics like Labyrinth.

      Anonymous 5 years ago .

      I guess I was also just super glad that she wasn’t basically a nitwit whose key to happiness is hooking up with a dude (like oh EVERY disney princess.) but I get your point. :-)

        Anonymous 5 years ago .

        (err that was me jenn l again. Lol)

Eugene 5 years ago .

I enjoyed the movie and thought it was charming, but I also felt like it was all so *slight* and honestly, a little bit forced. Though on some level I appreciate the character arcs and Merida and the Queen coming to understand each other better, that’s a lame way to lift a spell–and how does it apply to the boys? I was a bit offended that she had to *sew* in order to save her mother… Or did she? It’s not really clear on whether the mended tapestry is anything more than symbolic, since it doesn’t seem to work at first anyway. And you’re totally right that none of Merida’s inherent talents factor into her success, even if they impress her mother. Her mom does fight off the evil bear, but even he feels kind of superfluous to the story.

My wife pointed out that this feels much more like a Disney movie, though we both liked the fact that romance doesn’t factor into the story at all, except perhaps in terms of anti-romance, which pushed Merida to rebel. All in all, it’s fun and pretty, but just not as deep as it could have been or as revolutionary as I’d hoped.

    Jenn Reese 5 years ago .

    Ted did some research into the folks behind BRAVE, and you may be onto something with “it felt like a Disney movie.” Check his comment below.

Virginia 5 years ago .

Eugene and Jenn, I can’t think of a US film that would fit, but ‘The Book of Kells’ has a really great female character, whose role is not just to be female. Of course, she may not actually be a girl, either. She seems to be a sort of shape-shifter spirit. :) And ‘City of Ember’ movie was HORRIBLE. Awful. Terrible. But the book is so popular in our house that we keep extra paperback copies to hand out to friends.

    Jenn Reese 5 years ago .

    I absolutely loved CITY OF EMBER (the book) and found the movie unwatchable. Ugh. I have The Book of Kells on my Netflix queue — I really need to watch that!

Devan 5 years ago .

I agree with you completely. With its non-exploratory atmosphere and uninspired conflict, the entire thing felt unsettlingly domestic. It bothered me that the conflicts all felt extremely contrived and tacked on. It wasn’t about her overcoming something that she had any vested interest in, it was about her undoing something caused by exercising agency for the first time in her life. I find that an incredibly troubling message to be pitching to girls. Even the conclusion is weird. “Remember girls, the most important thing to know about wanting to be your own person is that you should put everyone else’s interests before yours and apologize for what you want.”

    Jenn Reese 5 years ago .

    Devan, that’s a great point about Merida exercising agency. I hadn’t thought of that.

    For me, the message actually felt like they were telling me how to be a good woman: be active *and* domestic. Just one isn’t enough.

Ted 5 years ago .

I was quite disappointed too, and afterwards I looked online to see if I could find anything about the movie’s development history. The writer/director (before she was replaced) Brenda Chapman has no other Pixar film credits in her IMDb entry; she’s mostly worked on Disney and Dreamworks films, which may explain why this film felt like a conventional animated film. (It was originally called “The Bear and the Bow,” which even sounds like a conventional animated film.) By contrast, if you look at the directors of films like “Up” and “Wall-E,” they all have credits for multiple previous Pixar films.

I wonder if this movie is an indication of Disney and Pixar working together more closely, with the storytelling sensibility of the former diluting the latter. If so, it doesn’t bode well.

    Jenn Reese 5 years ago .

    Really interesting, Ted. I also caught the tail end of an NPR interview with Chapman where she said something like, “We took gender out of the equation for this movie” where she claimed it made no difference that Merida was female and that no one working on the film ever even considered it. I was completely dumbfounded.

      AegisRawks 5 years ago .

      Hold your horses Ted!

      I’ll have you know that Brenda’s take on the film was much, much, MUCH more different than what you saw on theaters.

Straight Brown Hair 5 years ago .

Jenn, it’s SUCH a disappointment that Pixar has waited this long to create a movie with a girl protagonist. I haven’t seen BRAVE yet, but I’m not at all surprised at what kind of movie they ended up making. As you say:

“Because to Pixar, boys are heroes and girls — when they exist outside of boys — need to overcome the fact that they’re girls.”

This just sucks. A movie I can think of to compare it to is HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON. It’s a beautifully animated movie, and the plot is, at least partly, about a boy trying to deal with his relationship with his father. But that boy character, Hiccup, also gets to go out and make friends with a dragon and prove himself the best warrior and save the island AND all the dragons. If only BRAVE could have been that kind of movie.

Meanwhile, yes, the movies that really stay with me, the ones I really love, are Miyazaki’s.

Karen 5 years ago .

Great observations, Jenn. I very much appreciate a review which thoughtfully explores a movie’s strengths and weaknesses, critiquing without condemning. The issue you describe is so rampant in movies about female characters that you would think by now, creators would be more aware and concerned about feeding into problematic gender roles, but I guess when something makes money there is a “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” mentality, where “it” == movie formula rather than, you know, social justice and equity. I just don’t understand what would be so damn hard about writing in a bit of plot that gave a female heroine something to actually usefully *do* in the world beyond focus on her personal growth and relationships.

Mary Anne Mohanraj 5 years ago .

I’m curious what you thought of Mulan in this context? Because yes, she has to overcome all the girl stuff, but she also gets to SAVE CHINA. Which is awesome. Even if she has to pretend to be a boy to do it.

    Fer’s Mom 5 years ago .

    The problem with Mulan, for me, is that at the end she has the choice to become one of the emperor’s advisors, but instead goes home and gets married. She had a big stage for a while, but as a woman had to return to the domestic sphere.

      Mary Anne Mohanraj 5 years ago .

      Oh, I agree; I could make a list of the problems with Mulan, including that one. But still, I think it deserves to be recognized for what it did accomplish — for what Mulan got to accomplish. To train, to fight, to lead, to save her family and her society.

Lissa 5 years ago .

I wasn’t captured by the trailer for this.
Miyazaki really sets the bar.

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