The first Disney princess who doesn't want to get married

Princess Merida and the royal family in a scene from the new Disney Pixar movie <i>Brave</i>.
Princess Merida and the royal family in a scene from the new Disney Pixar movie Brave

A strange thing happened when I went to see Brave yesterday: as soon as the ‘camera’ swooped down across those sweeping Scottish vistas accompanied by Patrick Doyle’s glorious score, I felt a little sting around my eyes.

When Merida (Kelly Macdonald) rode her trusty steed, Angus, through the forest and then climbed a cliff-face to dance, ecstatic with freedom, atop a waterfall, I started weeping.

Not uncontrollably (or, as we like to say in my family, “doing an Emma Thompson in Sense & Sensibility), but steadily, and nearly throughout the entire film. I like to think of them as tears of relief. The relief works on a number of levels.

There is the fact that after nearly a century of peddling the princess myth to girls the world over, Disney - in partnership with Pixar - has finally offered a film for the consumption of young girls (and boys) that doesn’t present the quest for romance as life’s pinnacle. (Disney deserve some credit for at least addressing the ridiculousness of the princess machine in the wonderful Enchanted, even though it too followed a well-worn path to romantic happiness.)

Some critics have grumbled about the film’s lack of a romantic thread (the idea being that without a romantic arc, the film feels incomplete), to which I say, yes, and?

Merida and Elinor’s fights, which swing from blazing rages to private, aching regret complicated by pride, reminded me so much of my own clashes with my mother in my teenage years I wanted to dash from the cinema and call home.

Merida is infuriated by the idea that she might be betrothed to a boy she has no interest in marrying; her chief interest is her own freedom. Rightly so. What child (and that’s what she is, at 15 or so, though I speak more of the young audience) in their right mind should care about relationships? What have we been doing feeding “happily ever after” romantic narratives to children for so long, anyway?

There have always been glimmers of hope in the Disney princess stable - Ariel’s headstrong inquisitiveness in The Little Mermaid, Belle’s bookish smarts in Beauty & The Beast - but they are always squashed by the all-consuming might of Romance™ in the end.

Indeed, Merida bears little resemblance to her Disney Princess relatives. Instead, she reminds me of the treasured female characters of my childhood - headstrong Velvet Brown in National Velvet, Tootie and her dolls with “four fatal diseases” in Meet Me In St Louis, Titty in Swallows And Amazons. (The influence of Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke is also strong in Brave, both visually and thematically.)

There are big changes afoot behind the scenes, too. It’s the first time that a Pixar film has had a female lead (which is, frankly, astounding given they’ve been making feature-length animations since 1995’s Toy Story), and also the first time the studio has employed a female director in Brenda Chapman.


Although, as Time’s Richard Corliss notes, “Chapman was removed halfway through in favor of Mark Andrews, a Pixar veteran who served as co-writer and second unit director of John Carter. There were whispers that Chapman had got lost in the thickets of story, that the movie needed a hand — a man’s hand — to make it more of an action film, less a Mother’s Day card.”

I’m trying really hard not to let that depressing (and very real) possibility dent my excitement, because I think Chapman’s story - and how she was trying to tell it - is the really exciting thing about Brave.

Merida’s refusal to bow to societal expectation forms the guts of the story, officially, and much of its first third or so is concerned with the ribald “highland games” type festival at which the firstborn sons of three clans competes for Merida’s hand in marriage.

But it was the rest of the film that was its beating heart: one of the most sensitive and nuanced illustrations of the relationship between mothers and daughters I’ve seen on screen for a long time.

Too often - and especially in American feature animation - mothers are simply antagonists, dreary gatekeepers, or unsympathetic shrews (and pity the poor stepmothers). Elinor (Emma Thompson) is a deeply conflicted woman, torn between the tradition she feels she must uphold, and her love for her daughter (and, perhaps, her own regrets, having been betrothed herself).

Merida and Elinor’s fights, which swing from blazing rages to private, aching regret complicated by pride, reminded me so much of my own clashes with my mother in my teenage years I wanted to dash from the cinema and call home.

As Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir notes, “Merida has to learn one of the hardest lessons that any child, male or female, must absorb: Our seemingly impervious and all-powerful parents are human, too, and we can hurt them grievously through our selfishness and thoughtlessness.”

(If you’ve not seen the film, and you care about spoilers, turn away now.)

The spell Merida requests to change her mum (i.e. change her mind) literally changes Elinor, into a bear. Cognisant of the fact that her hunting-mad father, King Fergus (Billy Connoly), will likely lop off his own wife’s head, Merida takes her Bear-Mum to the forest.

Their scenes of bonding, as Elinor tries to live as a bear (she insists her daughter cook the fishes she has just pawed from the river, then eats them in a decidedly unladylike fashion), are stunningly beautiful.

The New York Times’ reliably wise Manohla Dargis is on the money about this aspect of the film: “The association of Merida with the natural world accounts for some of the movie’s most beautifully animated sequences, and in other, smarter or maybe just braver, hands it might have also inspired new thinking about women, men, nature and culture.”

In Chapman’s hands, perhaps?

It’s a shame to think that the woman who brought this story to Pixar was not allowed to see it to fruition in the manner she saw fit, but the very fact that some of her vision of young womanhood and motherhood remains intact is something we should all be grateful for.

To draw again from O’Hehir’s assessment, “This is like the Inglourious Basterds of feminism; all it took to bring down patriarchy in Scotland was one spunky redhead standing up to say no! Moms and girls everywhere deserve this movie, absolutely, and I hope they have a great time. But they also deserve much more, and much better.”

Imagine what might happen when Pixar and Disney let a woman take the reins and really go for it, like Merida riding Angus through the glen.

From Daily Life