As an individual piece of filmmaking, Brave is almost entirely a success: gorgeous, well-made, exciting, funny, heartwarming, etc., with a fine story that both digs deep into traditional folk tales (Scottish and otherwise) and speaks to modern concerns; even if few of us are bound by ancient tradition to wed the scion of a warring clan, most of us have experience of being torn between the demands of those we love and our own desires.
As THE FIRST PIXAR MOVIE WITH A FEMALE PROTAGONIST, however, it’s a bit of a disappointment. It is, of course, exactly what you would expect a bunch of good-hearted male nerds with daughters to come up with: The Hero’s Journey, But For Girls! You can do anything you set your mind to, honey! Shoot, ride, swing swords! Adventure isn’t just for boys anymore!
But Pixar, especially lately, has trained me to expect better. Almost none of their previous movies can be boiled down to The Hero’s Journey (and the ones that can — the Cars movies — are generally agreed to be the worst of the lot). They’re stories about the social order (The Incredibles, A Bug’s Life, the Toy Story trilogy), about coping with loss (Finding Nemo, Up), about the artistic life (Ratatouille), about human destiny (Wall-E), about the wonder of imagination (Monsters, Inc., the Toy Story trilogy again), and (every single one of them), about establishing communitarian ties — about creating families out of what would otherwise be pretty sad and lonely individuals.
So when THE FIRST PIXAR MOVIE WITH A FEMALE PROTAGONIST is instead about the pressures of already-extant family life — when the scope of the story is limited, in its essentials, to an intimate portrait of a specific mother-daughter relationship with no indication that anything but personal pride is ever really at stake — when, after all the shots have been fired and all the rides have been ridden and all the swords have been swung the world, the interpersonal relations, and the social order are exactly the same as they were when the story began, the underlying message is: you can shoot and ride and swing swords as much as you want, honey, but you’ll never escape the domestic sphere. Everything, in the end, comes down to how much you love your mother.
Looking broader than Pixar, this could be seen as a balancing of the scales for all the motherless-to-a-woman Disney Princesses. They, of course, were traditionally proscribed by the fairy tale form; and come to think of it, the sheer domesticity of the fairy tale, the one traditional form of European narrative that is allowed to have a female protagonist (other than the saint’s life) is striking; compare fairy tales to the extended romances written in the same centuries about Lancelot, Roland, El Cid — stories about empire and ambition and tragedy, rooted in history however fantastically arranged. (You can almost hear a fourteenth-century editor explaining patiently that men are just submitting more epic poems, and with greater confidence; the stories that nurses, mothers and grandmothers tell on the hearth are no doubt very good of their kind, but they’re not really what the National Ballad Awards were created to recognize.)
To boil it down even more: not a single other Pixar movie is about how its hero is male (or male-identified). None of them even spend any time thinking about it. This one is very much about how Merida is a girl. And while that is not at all surprising, it kind of sucks.
None of this is to be taken as suggesting that I didn’t enjoy the movie. I very much did. As someone who has taken twenty years to recover from the realization that his life was not going to fall automatically into the Hero’s Journey, I took great comfort in those familiar beats; and as someone whose first completed piece of prose narrative submitted for the approval of others featured a red-haired medieval Celtic princess who (I’m pretty sure) swung a sword once or twice, I took a very old satisfaction in the Gaelicisms of the voice acting, the set design, and the soundtrack. I’m well over it now (thank you, Internet), but it was not unpleasant to be reminded of my fourteen-year-old self’s romantic fascination with all things Celtic for two hours.
Yes, all of this. I greatly enjoyed the movie. It was beautiful in both the content and the animation, and I’ll gladly watch it again and again. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t problematic, and this is a very good explanation of what went wrong.