Brave (2012; dirs. Mark Andrews, Brenda Chapman, Steve Purcell) begins hopefully: the lush, colorful, detailed animation you’d expect from Disney and Pixar; a distinctive range of characters; rousing music; high production values; and excessive enthusiasm. The main character is Merida, an independent young woman who loves archery and horseback riding. She’s rebelling against her parents, especially her mother, Elinor (Emma Thompson), who is preparing her for marriage to one of the sons of clans with whom their kingdom has an alliance. Merida takes more after her rambunctious oversized father, King Fergus (Billy Connolly), than her mother. The big crisis occurs when Elinor arranges a competition among the rival clans for her daughter’s hand. Merida doesn’t want to be competed for, isn’t ready to marry, and she runs away.
Set in ancient Scotland (judging by the accents of the characters, and by the fact that the unnamed nation is divided into clans), Brave focuses on a royal family. Although most of the characters are parodies and exaggerations, the servants (as is typical for a Disney film) come in for broad stereotyping, especially the cow-faced house servant who is easily frightened and befuddled. Disney certainly loves royalty and befuddled servants.
The plot up to this point is predictable—we can see where it is going, we know there will be a struggle of wills between mother and daughter, that probably the daughter will somehow manage to escape betrothal to a man she hasn’t chosen for herself. At last we have the female heroine many have called for in Disney and Pixar animated films, which have been dominated by male characters. The trouble is that after a promising buildup, the film lurches to a halt and lumbers off in a different direction when Merida arranges for a witch to cast a spell that will “change” her mother so that she won’t have to be married. The witch changes her mother to a bear, and the rest of the film veers and jerks around as Merida struggles to make certain that her mother doesn’t remain a bear past the second sunrise, after which the transformation will be permanent. The witch herself is quite amusing, vaguely ethnic, and like many Disney witches (many Disney adult women) an ugly hag.
The fact that five writers receive credit for the screenplay suggests there was difficulty with the storyline from the beginning.
There’s no doubting the entertaining nature of this film. It was fun to watch, but frustrating. The plot fails the animation and the characters, especially the voices of Emma Thompson and Billy Connolly. And it fails as well the film’s supposed feminist ambition to show that an animated female protagonist can be as successful as the males. Despite her independent assertiveness, Merida, a skilled archer, swordswoman, and equestrian, manages to reverse the spell on her mother through the feminine skill of sewing, with which she mends a tapestry she damaged with her sword. She learns to control her temper and love her mother. Elinor learns not to be so pushy. They all agree that the princess is not ready to marry, yet. Clearly that day will come. Is this victory for Merida, or just a stay of the Disney inevitable?