Film Review: Brave (2012)

*All reviews contain spoilers*
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Cast
Peigi Barker – Young Merida
Robbie Coltrane – Lord Dingwall
Billy Connolly – Fergus
Steven Cree – Young Macintosh
Patrick Doyle – Martin the Guard
Craig Ferguson – Lord Macintosh
Eilidh Fraser – Maudie (partial)
John Hasler – Additional voices
Sally Kinghorn – Maudie (partial)
Kelly Macdonald – Merida
Kevin McKidd – Lord MacGuffin and Young MacGuffin
Callum O’Neill – Wee Dingwall
Steve Purcell – The Crow
John Ratzenberger – Gordon the Guard
Emma Thompson – Elinor
Julie Walters – The Witch
Sources of Inspiration – Largely original
Release Dates
June 10th, 2012 at the Seattle International Film Festival
June 18th, 2012 at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, California, USA (premiere)
June 22nd, 2012 in USA (general release)
Run-time – 100 minutes
Directors – Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman
Composers – Patrick Doyle
Worldwide Gross – $540 million
Accolades – 20 wins and 48 nominations, including an Oscar win


2012 in History

An Italian cruise ship, the Costa Concordia, sinks off the Italian coast and kills 32, just months before the hundredth anniversary of the Titanic‘s demise
Queen Elizabeth II of the UK celebrates her Diamond Jubilee after sixty years on the throne
Relations between the EU and Iran deteriorate; the EU places an embargo against Iran, who retaliate by cutting off oil exports to Britain and France. Later in the year, Canada also cuts ties with Iran
Greece’s government debt crisis worsens, and the Eurozone provide a second bailout
In Mali, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad declares the latter region independent following the ousting of the nation’s president (they re-joined Mali the next year)
A North Korean satellite intended to observe the Earth explodes shortly after launching
The Tokyo Skytree opens to the public and is officially the tallest freestanding tower in the world
Eight years on from the first, the second transit of Venus occurs; there won’t be another for almost a century
Shenzhou 9 takes China’s first female astronaut into outer space to dock with the Tiangong 1 space station
The last known Pinta Island tortoise, Lonesome George, dies in Galápagos National Park, thus rendering the subspecies extinct
American shooter James Holmes kills twelve people and injures nearly sixty others at a movie theatre in Aurora, Colorado
London becomes the first city to host the Olympics three times, and with Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Brunei sending female competitors for the first time, all eligible countries have now sent women to at least one Olympic Games
On July 31st, India suffers the worst blackout in history, leaving hundreds of millions without power
The Mars Science Laboratory’s Curiosity rover lands successfully on Mars
Austrian skydiver Felix Baumgartner becomes the first person to break the sound barrier (without a vehicle) during a record-setting space dive over Roswell, New Mexico
Israel launches Operation Pillar of Defense against the Palestinian-governed Gaza Strip, killing Hamas military chief Ahmed Jabari; after a week of violence in which more Palestinians and Israelis are killed, a ceasefire is declared by Egyptian Foreign Minister Mohamed Kamel Amr and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton
Palestine is granted observer status by the UN General Assembly
Adam Lanza kills twenty-eight people in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting; twenty victims are children under seven, while six others are adult staff members – the remaining two are himself and his own mother
Births of Princess Athena of Denmark and Princess Estelle, Duchess of Östergötland


Hello again everyone, and welcome to another review! We’re leaving the wilds of Africa behind now for the colder climes of bonnie Scotland, as we return to Pixar for the first time in forever with the notorious Brave. My main reason for covering this one at all is because Merida was made an official Disney princess as part of the marketing campaign, and as the only one not to be from a Disney canon film, she is thus also the only one I haven’t talked about yet. However, Brave is an interesting one for other reasons, from its troubled development period to its sheer uniqueness in the Pixar canon as a period piece about a princess (which was more Disney’s fare, ordinarily), so I thought it was definitely worth talking about before continuing to work through the rest of my favourites.

The project was first announced back in 2008 under the title of The Bear and the Bow, when it was touted as Pixar’s first fairy tale. Notably, it was also set to be the studio’s first film to be helmed by a female director – animation veteran Brenda Chapman. Given Chapman’s impressive track record at other studios, The Bear and the Bow seemed to be in good hands; drawing inspiration for the story from her relationship with her own daughter, Chapman conceived the concept of the film in the tradition of the tales of Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm and poured a lot of hard work into its development… but there was trouble afoot.

I’m sure fellow animation buffs out there have already heard about how, only a few years into production in late 2010, Chapman was suddenly fired as director, before being replaced by the somewhat less experienced Mark Andrews. Officially, this was because of problems with the story, with such changes in leadership apparently being quite common in animation (Andrews consulted with friend and colleague Brad Bird before accepting the position, as Bird had been through the same thing on Ratatouille). The clearest information I could find suggested that something about Chapman’s version wasn’t working, hence her replacement with Andrews.

However, the issue is unsurprisingly fraught with controversy. Some sources cite insiders at Pixar as saying that the decision was made out of excessive fretting and over-thinking, with the great studio’s reputation making them unnecessarily finnicky about a perfectly good story. It is also stated in several places that the main reason for Chapman’s removal was due to… ahem… “creative differences” between her and John Lasseter, then head of the studio. Given the whole 2018 scandal, hindsight lends this comment a rather more sinister edge, leading you to wonder whether Chapman simply wouldn’t put up with Lasseter’s inappropriate behaviour.

Brave_Poster

Whatever the reasons were, the loss of the studio’s first female director before her film was even complete was met with dismay by others in the industry, and it certainly wasn’t a good look from a PR perspective, either. As of this writing, Pixar have yet to release any more films helmed by women, although Domee Shi looks set to be the next if things go to plan and they have begun to focus more on female characters in some of their most recent offerings.

Chapman herself naturally found the news of her replacement “devastating” at the time, but she has since stressed that her “vision came through in the film” and that she remains “very proud of the movie”, saying, “I ultimately stood up for myself”. She also mentioned in a 2018 interview that while she still had bittersweet feelings about being taken off the project (which she saw no good reason for creatively), it “opened more doors for {her} to have that happen”. I suppose at least Chapman’s name was left in place as co-director, since the story did ultimately come from her and she deserved her share of the credit.

Overall, the film took six years to make, beginning with a research trip to Scotland itself in 2006. Andrews was already a part of the team at this point as a consultant, being a big fan of Scottish culture, and he talked about how they “went everywhere from Edinburgh, up into the Highlands, to the Isle of Skye, the Isle of Lewis and Harris, the Clannish Stones, castles up the wazoo!” He went on, “We went skinny dipping in lochs, we laid down in the heather, we climbed boulders, got stuck in the rain, it was fantastic. We went to the Braemar Games, we went to the Lannick Games. For the Lannick Games they had the ‘march of the men’, all these guys dress up in period kit and they’d walk this six-mile hike, but they’re stopping every once in a while to get a little dram of scotch. We were right along with them, drinking scotch. Boy, we were not walking in straight lines on the way back!” (Interestingly, while the Braemar Gathering is held every September, I can’t find any reference to the Lannick ones; must be a regional thing).

Following Chapman’s replacement in 2010, the main focus of the production shifted to the story, with Andrews working to turn his predecessor’s material into a workable film (at least, that’s what reports say). As we shall get into below, the writing remains one of the film’s sore spots, with many citing it as the main reason that the film didn’t seem to work as well as Pixar’s earlier hits, but first, it’s time to take a look at Pixar’s first female protagonist and see whether Chapman’s vision for her really did come through.

Characters and Vocal Performances

Much like the directing, the film’s casting also saw several changes. At some point, actors like Richard Wilson, David Tennant, Sir Sean Connery (Fergus), Annette Crosbie (the Witch) and Stephen Farrelly (Young Macintosh) were all considered for roles, but the most notable casting switch concerned the flame-haired lead herself.

Merida was originally set to be played by Reese Witherspoon, who joined the cast in 2010 alongside the other principals: Billy Connolly, Emma Thompson and Julie Walters. Director Andrews explained that she was on the project for “quite some time. She was getting her Scottish accent down, she was working very hard and it was sounding great, but as we were continuing with the movie she had other movies lining up, so unfortunately we were unable to continue with her and had to get a replacement”. Thus, in 2011, she was replaced with Scottish actress Kelly Macdonald. (Witherspoon herself apparently disagreed with Andrews’ praise, feeling that her poor accent was the main reason she had to leave).

Merida looking frustrated

So! Here she is, in all her glory – Merida, a girl of many firsts. In addition to being Pixar’s first female protagonist, she was also the first Disney princess not to be based on a pre-existing character or historical figure, the first not to sing, the first not to have a love interest and the first to have brothers.

As a princess living in tenth century Scotland (roughly), Merida’s story arc focuses on her difficult relationship with her mother and the ways in which they clash over how she should be living her life. Indeed, in this small cast, Merida and mother Elinor are the only two characters to have any real depth or development to them, with everybody else relegated to supporting roles. There’s a distinctly feminine aspect to this story which had a lot of potential for exploration, although how much of that potential is reached is questionable given the awkward pacing as the film progresses.

At its heart, Merida’s story could be taken as a rough metaphor for the trials and tribulations of feminism as it developed in waves across the twentieth century (although I’m far from an expert). Elinor is from an older generation and is determined to uphold the ideals of the patriarchal society she was raised in, because it’s all she’s ever known and she has become a pro at utilising the system to her advantage. Merida, on the other hand, is a sort of “suffragette” who rebels against the established protocols of being a princess and upsets the status quo by refusing to settle into the role society expects of her. The two of them struggle to understand one another – Elinor’s “soft skills” vs. Merida’s “hard skills” – and so the Witch’s spell is brought in to give them a little perspective, by forcing each woman into the other’s role and thus allowing them to recognise each other’s strengths, leading to greater unity between them. Of course, that’s just my reading!

Merida young I saw a wispMerida young and frightened during storm

In the two scenes shown of Merida’s childhood, we see two very different sides of her mother which raise some interesting questions about the complications Elinor is facing in raising her daughter. It’s clear that Merida and her mother were closer and more comfortable with each other in these early years, but even then, Elinor seems torn between deciding what’s appropriate and what’s best for her daughter.

In the first scene, Elinor playfully encourages her daughter’s active imagination after hearing the girl proclaim she’s seen a will-o’-the-wisp, a ghostly light said to lead people to their fates (and more commonly called spunkies in the Scottish Highlands, by the by). However, she also expresses disapproval when her husband presents Merida with a miniature bow and arrow, protesting, “She’s a lady!” Despite these reservations, we see Elinor comforting a frightened Merida during a storm in a later flashback, suggesting that she does want her daughter to be strong and self-reliant but with words rather than weapons.

Merida angry at dinner

By the time Merida is sixteen, the bond between her and Elinor has become increasingly strained. Having inherited her mother’s stubbornness and her father’s free spirit, Merida is proving to be quite a handful, and Elinor is at her wit’s end trying to keep the girl in line. We see Merida chafing at her mother’s restrictions and bored out of her mind by the many “feminine” tasks she’s being trained in, showcasing the fundamental divide in their approaches to their roles in society – whereas Elinor is in her element commanding a room or hosting an event, Merida prefers to be out by herself practicing her archery or engaging in a little free climbing. They each have their own kind of power and strength, but neither can see it in the other.

This tension between them comes to a head when Elinor springs the prospect of marriage on Merida one night at dinner, an announcement the teenager meets with understandable shock. To Elinor, this stage of a princess’s life is so natural that she doesn’t even bother to warn Merida before inviting the suitors, but Merida genuinely didn’t see it coming and is infuriated at the perceived loss of independence. Elinor does not understand at all, having entered an arranged marriage herself and settled into it quite happily, but at this point she is failing to see her daughter as a separate person from herself – Merida doesn’t have Elinor’s social grace and is less sure of herself, but Elinor dismisses her protests without even talking to her properly, missing out on an opportunity for bonding as she later admits to Fergus that she had her own “reservations” about marriage.

Merida cringing at suitors

Unfortunately for Merida, the ball is already rolling, and soon enough the “suitors” arrive for her inspection. They’re not a very inspiring bunch – no doubt a real Scot would dismiss them as a shower of sh*** – and Merida’s worst fears appear to be realised as she faces the prospect of being saddled with one of them forever. Basically, the main problem with all three is that they are boys rather than men, emphasising to the audience through their juvenile behaviour just how unsuited these suitors are to marriage themselves; none of these characters are ready for this, the film seems to be saying.

By the time we reach the big archery tournament which will determine who wins the princess’s hand, even Elinor seems to be having doubts about the arrangement as she watches the three bumbling princes stumbling and fumbling all over the place. However, she is still totally unprepared for Merida’s ultimate act of rebellion – in a clever twist of the rules and one of the film’s best scenes, Merida steps up to “shoot for her own hand”, using her strongest skill to make mincemeat of the competition and defend her own independence. Archery makes for a fittingly phallic metaphor, as Merida’s arrows are so precise that they actually splinter some of the princes’, effectively emasculating all three boys and their fathers by beating them at their own game – it’s telling that one of Elinor’s main criticisms afterwards is that Merida “embarrassed them”.

Merida loosing an arrow close-up

Merida’s mastery of a traditionally masculine sport is a pretty blunt feminist statement, showing us clearly that she “don’t need no man” and is perfectly capable of managing on her own. However, Merida’s reasons for entering the competition are only peripherally related to the princes; rather, this serves as her last act of defiance against her mother, the relationship around which her story really centres. The staging and framing of the scene emphasise this, keeping the focus on Elinor’s reactions while subtly cutting Fergus out of the shot altogether – the lords even look to her rather than him for guidance when Merida first steps out. As Merida looses her final arrow, we can see Elinor approaching in the background, with the arrow seeming to cut “through” her from our perspective and thus symbolically freeing Merida from her control. It’s all beautifully done… if only the rest of the film could have been kept to this standard.

Merida angry after tournament

After the archery tournament brings the matter to a head, Merida and Elinor finally have the confrontation that’s been brewing for years. Unfortunately, both are too angry and stubborn to really listen to each other, resulting in mutually rash acts which both regret – Merida slashes her mother’s carefully-woven tapestry with a sword, and Elinor then throws Merida’s beloved bow into the fireplace. Once again, there is some symbolism at play, with Merida using a masculine weapon to slice apart the “feminine” work in which she herself is depicted in the idealised role her mother wants to squash her into, while Elinor then deprives Merida of such weapons in an attempt to force her to conform.

Being the adult in the situation, it is Elinor who first shows remorse for this, trying to rescue Merida’s bow from the fire almost immediately, but by then Merida has already fled the room in tears. The look of genuine remorse on Elinor’s face tells us that she does care about her daughter’s happiness first and foremost, even if the girl’s behaviour frustrates her.

Merida following the wisps

Up to this point, the developing relationship between the two characters is well handled, making you curious to see how the issue is going to be resolved. Unfortunately, it’s at this point that the story begins to lose its way somewhat, as it starts to get bogged down with magic and the whole bear subplot at the expense of the more nuanced dynamic we had until now. After riding out into the forest in despair, the miserable Merida is led by some more wisps to a strange little cottage, where she finds a wit- ah, WOODCARVER, who provides her with a rather dubious magical solution to her problem.

Merida with sick Elinor

Now, this may well be accurate for a teenager, but Merida’s decisions from this point are not well-handled at all; in her desperation, she asks for “a spell to change me mum,” which is so vague that she winds up turning the poor woman into a bear – something which she shows absolutely no remorse for until well into the film’s climax. I remember when I first saw this in theatres, I hated Merida because she seemed so selfish; even after she has essentially poisoned her mother with god-knows-what and Elinor is visibly in pain, all Merida cares about is quizzing her on whether or not the marriage will still be going ahead. I mean really, I sympathise with her to a point, but come on – maybe show a little concern for your ailing mother?

Anyway, after the spell changes Elinor into a bear, Merida sneaks her out of the castle (well, “sneaks” might be too kind of a word) and the two camp out in the wild, where Elinor gets the chance to see Merida in her element for the first time. After the Queen’s initial attempts to maintain some kind of order by preparing a “civilised” dinner go disastrously awry, Merida is finally able to prove the worth of her “inappropriate” skills by taking over, using archery once again to spear some fish for their supper and then building them a shelter for the night. Having spent more time outdoors than her mother, Merida is far more knowledgeable and at ease with the countryside than Elinor is, giving the Queen the opportunity to witness her daughter’s hidden capabilities first-hand and opening her eyes to who her daughter truly is.

Merida pointing to the river

Further plot developments reveal to Merida the wisdom of history, as she realises with growing horror that the spell she has used on her mother has been used before by a similarly selfish prince, leading to the creation of a demon bear called Mor’du who was responsible for mauling her father in her childhood. She and her mother then return to the Witch’s cottage to try and undo the mistake, only to find that the old hag has passed the buck to them; they must “mend the bond torn by pride”, which Merida interprets literally as meaning they need to fix the tapestry she slashed during their earlier argument.

Merida and Elinor at the Crafty Carver

All of the convoluted plot threads thus come together as the pair head back to the castle to retrieve the tapestry; of course, there shouldn’t be any need for Elinor to accompany Merida inside for this, but the plot requires it because she now needs to witness Merida attempting to take on her own role as mediator. In their absence, a brawl has broken out between the various clans over the proposed marriage, and with Elinor… er, incapacitated? … it falls to Merida to step in. Having seen her using her “hard skills” to survive out in the forest, Elinor now watches as Merida tries out her mother’s “soft skills” to smooth the ruffled feathers and win the lords back around.

Merida talking with the lords

A nice moment, if a little clumsily handled with all the “bear pantomiming” going on just over the clans’ heads, although it resolves Elinor’s internal conflicts a little too neatly for my liking (we’ll return to that below). This scene frees Merida from the arranged marriage, effectively giving the girl exactly what she wanted without her having to grow, change or sacrifice anything – because after some hasty needlework and a desperate fight against Mor’du out in the forest, she does manage to change her mother back again. While this climactic scene of her finally apologising for what she’s done to her mother was sorely needed, it felt like too little too late, as by this point Merida already has what she wanted (it almost feels like it would have been more satisfying to leave Elinor as a bear, just to teach the girl a lesson).

Merida crying for her mother

Ultimately, the handling of Pixar’s first female protagonist leaves a lot to be desired. She did have a great deal of potential with her strong spirit and independent attitude, but the execution of her character arc feels messy and muddies her priorities, making it seem like she’s willing to do almost anything to preserve her freedom without ever presenting her with a clear goal (Fergus even cheekily lampshades this at one point with his parody of his daughter, wanting to stay single and “firing arrows into the sunset”).

I would compare her with Mulan, a superficially similar heroine with a far more admirable character underneath her fighting skills. Mulan, a girl living in a similar time period, is faced with the same predicament of being ushered into an arranged marriage at sixteen, but her reactions make more sense from a narrative standpoint – far from resisting, she is realistically eager to please her family by doing what is expected of her, and is disappointed and embarrassed when she fails to measure up to her society’s expectations. It’s a small difference, perhaps, but it makes Mulan’s story feel so much more real, because she is then faced with a bit of an identity crisis as she wonders what she will do with her life if she cannot fulfil her responsibilities to her family.

Mulan actively tries to fit her role and despairs at not being able to, as a woman of the time likely would, but Merida has been given an anachronistically modern attitude and resists her role simply because it is coded as traditionally “feminine”, which modern audiences often read as “bad” or “oppressive”. The practicalities of a political marriage at that time would actually have encompassed a number of duties and responsibilities – the film even makes it clear that the union would maintain peace and unity between the clans – but Merida approaches it like a modern girl would, concerned only with her own independence and totally disregarding any sense of duty to her kingdom.

Honour to Us All imagery #2

The thing is, Mulan’s actions are not for her own benefit, but to protect someone she loves. Whereas Merida seems to be motivated largely by her own self-interest, Mulan has clear principles which she adheres to consistently throughout her story arc; everything she does makes sense and keeps the audience on her side, because her motivations are clear and selfless. Now, I’m certainly not criticising Merida for not wanting to get married, or for enjoying more “masculine” activities – my problem with her is that there’s no clear goal pulling her forward through the narrative, which often makes her actions feel less sympathetic. She’s not rejecting the arranged marriage because, for instance, she wants to support her kingdom independently, nor is she using her archery skills to defend it – it’s all about her.

Jasmine with the guards

Perhaps a better comparison would be with princess Jasmine, who was also resisting arranged marriage in a similar time period but without the clear goal that Mulan had. The most that can be said for Jasmine’s motivation is that she wanted to get out of her palace and see something of the world, but that still fitted nicely into her relationship with Aladdin, as he was able to help her fulfil this dream and the two of them thus made a nice compliment. Yes, she ended up with a guy after all, but the crucial difference is that it was one of her choice, because she found someone who she “deemed worthy”. Merida finds no such soulmate among the princes, and while I was glad to see a Disney princess be allowed to remain single, I had to wonder; was it because Merida’s character isn’t defined enough?

Merida firing arrow on horseback

When you get right down to it, what does Merida actually want, as a character? If your answer is, “to not get married”, then why? Claims of her being too young only make sense from a modern perspective, and there’s really not much else a princess in that era could have done (context like this does matter, in my opinion, even in a “kid’s film”). We see from Elinor’s example just how powerful a married woman can be; indeed, marrying one of the buffoonish princes could open up a whole new world of social independence for Merida if she conducted herself with the same sureness that her mother has. Elinor may have a husband, but she is clearly the one pulling the strings in the daily doings of the kingdom, so marriage might not represent the loss of control that Merida seems to see it as.

Yet she continues to resist, for no clearer reason than simply wanting to remain single, a choice presumably made by the writers to make her more relatable to modern audiences. I’m all for Merida charting her own path in life, but when your heroine doesn’t have any clear alternative in mind and is apparently just delaying her responsibilities as a royal so she can have a bit more fun, it can become hard to sympathise with her. It’s good to see Merida’s sense of responsibility beginning to blossom by the end of the film and she does admit her mistake (“I’ve been selfish”), but overall her portrayal could have done with going through a few more drafts.

Merida having her hair brushed

I think this story could have been better told if it wasn’t a period piece about a princess; indeed, making Merida a princess feels like one of the biggest flaws with this whole idea. Brenda Chapman wanted this to be a story about a daughter’s evolving, often troubled relationship with her mother as she comes of age and becomes her own person, but by making her a princess in a medieval kingdom, Merida is saddled with all the social burdens that such a role entails. This is certainly not Lady Bird we’re dealing with. Princess Jasmine faced the same restrictions in her story and famously quipped, “Maybe I don’t want to be a princess anymore!”, which is something I think the writers of Brave really should have taken to heart.

I get it, Merida, really I do – I don’t want to get married either. But if I was Prince William, it would be a different story.

Elinor breaks up the brawl

In a way, Merida’s mother, Queen Elinor of DunBroch, is the more interesting of the two characters, as she is the only one who really grows and changes (I’m not counting Merida’s last-minute repentance near the end). Despite being the deuteragonist, it feels as though the writers had a better grasp on what they wanted Elinor to be than they did with Merida, so her story arc feels comparatively more fleshed out, even if its conclusion is still beset by problems.

Elinor is portrayed as the ideal woman according to the standards of her society. A commanding Queen with a powerful presence, she is able to silence a brawl without a word and handles herself with all the grace and dignity you’d expect of royalty. Her strength lies in the kind of soft skills that the people of this time period admired in women, such as social and emotional intelligence, so she is able to confidently exert her power as Queen to the fullest extent without feeling encumbered in any way. The core of her clash with her daughter comes from the two very different ways in which each of them defines their own womanhood – Elinor, knowing what type of woman society prefers, is trying to force Merida into a mould that the girl simply does not fit because that’s not who she is. Merida’s strength lies in the hard skills of sports and physical activity; this does not compromise her femininity and she notably never expresses any wish to be a man, but the restrictions of her society clash with the type of femininity she’s trying to embody, so she’s left feeling stifled and frustrated, openly dreading the prospect of a life like Elinor’s.

Elinor tells Merida not to doodle

One immediate advantage of Elinor’s depiction is that she is given a clear, focused goal from the beginning – she is working to shape her daughter into an ideal successor, with the obstacle to this goal coming not in the form of an antagonist but, refreshingly, from the daughter herself. Elinor’s main character flaw at this point, the one which she will have to learn to overcome, is that she doesn’t listen to Merida or try to understand her point of view. Elinor’s idea of femininity is rigid, inflexible and uncompromising, so instead of trying to meet her daughter halfway and work out a way for her to be comfortable while fulfilling her duties as a princess, she simply tries to force her will upon her until the girl snaps under the pressure. And what pressure it is! Elinor’s overbearing attitude is neatly summed up in the line, “Above all else, a princess strives for… well… perfection”.

Clearly, with this much pressure, something will have to give, thus leading to the archery tournament. After Merida fools Elinor into thinking she’s playing along by her rules, the Queen is thrown for a loop when the girl suddenly steps into the competition herself – this defiance of societal convention is unexpected precisely because it is the last thing Elinor would ever do, and she’s furious at her daughter’s blatant refusal to fit into the position she’s been grooming her for.

Elinor and Merida face off

It is worth noting for clarity that Elinor’s version of femininity is just as valid as Merida’s, even if some modern viewers might be tempted to see her as “old-fashioned” in contrast with Merida’s less conventional (and totally anachronistic) version. I do appreciate that the film showcases Elinor’s own power and doesn’t demonise her for trying to get Merida to adhere to her standards, as that would have been an easy and lazy mistake to make. When you consider again the period and the status of these characters, you realise that Elinor is probably just trying to raise Merida in the same way that she herself was brought up – the lessons, the outfits, the public speaking, all of it is just a natural part of being a woman to Elinor, so her daughter’s struggles are completely alien territory for her.

The irony is that in her own marriage to Fergus, Elinor is unknowingly being presented with a perfect example of the kind of functional, efficient relationship that she could be enjoying with Merida, if it weren’t for one difference – gender. Merida is very like her father, with a mischievous disregard for convention and a discomfort with the more refined side of royalty, preferring to work with her hands and let her bow do the talking; both are better with physical deeds than with words. While Elinor does have some frustrations with her husband, she basically accepts him as he is because, as a man, he is “allowed” to be this way, simply because he is unbound by the restrictions of being a woman. She and Fergus actually make a good team, with his physical prowess and battle skills keeping the kingdom safe while her social skills and education keep it running. If only she could embrace Merida’s true self the way she embraces Fergus’s, the whole mess could have been avoided.

Elinor what have I done

In her own way, Elinor is trying to prepare Merida for the best life possible under the patriarchal system they live in, knowing that her own strengths are the ones that society will support. When Merida stubbornly refuses to follow this advice and continues to stand up for her independence (admirable as that would be in a modern context), Elinor sees it as Merida throwing her life away out of pride, because there is no place for a woman like Merida in this society. She is thus likely seeing Merida as spoilt and ungrateful, when really Merida is only feeling trapped and frightened, as any teenager being forced into a lifelong commitment like marriage would.

One of the film’s last really great scenes is the confrontation between mother and daughter after the archery tournament, which shows us once again how lack of communication is keeping the two from reaching an understanding and culminates in the symbolic attacks on each other’s ideals. When Merida splits the tapestry, it’s as if she’s throwing down a gauntlet to her mother – “this is who I want to be, so will you accept it?” Elinor’s angry seizing and burning of Merida’s bow is all the answer she needs – “no, you will be who I want you to be”. However, after Merida has gone, this “conversation” continues with Elinor’s panicked rescue of the bow and her subsequent remorse at its loss, which tells the audience, “I just want her to be happy, above all else”.

Elinor transformed into a bear

Sadly, it’s after this that the story starts to lose itself in magical contrivances and ursine hijinks, as the desperate Merida resorts to trying to forcibly change her mother’s mind by poisoning her with a spell from some dodgy back-alley witch. This is what you get when you don’t listen to your children, Elinor!

From the moment Elinor is changed into a bear, the focus on her perspective in the conflict is essentially lost, because the marriage question has to take a backseat to the new problem of turning her back into a person again, which falls largely on Merida since she started the whole thing. We do see a certain amount of development in Elinor during this section, as she is forced to rely more on Merida’s skills after being deprived of the regal, human, female body over which she has full confidence and control, but as she has also been deprived of her voice, the film essentially stifles the traditionally feminine woman for the second half of the film so the unconventional woman can have her say. There’s a certain poetry to that, I guess – Elinor only listens to Merida at last when she can no longer speak to her – but it still feels like a waste of a perfectly strong dramatic plotline which didn’t need any magical bear nonsense to complicate it.

Elinor as a bear proud of Merida
Sorry this shot is so dark; it’s bear-Elinor smiling with pride as Merida talks to the lords.

Still, this is what we got, so now the film needs to resolve both the marriage issue and the bear issue. As it shambles towards its conclusion, the two seemingly unrelated plots are forced together, but they don’t mesh well at all. This is highlighted by the rather awkward scene in which Merida, en route to the tapestry, is forced to step in on her mother’s behalf to pacify the brawling lords and suddenly shows remorse – but for the wrong plot point. When Merida admits she’s been selfish and talks about needing to mend the bond, we know she’s talking about turning her mother into a bear, but the characters think she’s talking about aborting the marriage, leading to a convoluted wrench whereby Merida is suddenly on the brink of going through with the marriage after all, despite that not having even been relevant for a good half hour of the film by this point.

As if this wasn’t confusing enough, the same scene also abruptly resolves Elinor’s character arc by having her suddenly endorse Merida’s viewpoint and agree to calling off the marriage. This comes out of nowhere, as the last time the subject came up Elinor was still saying, “A decision has to be made” and it hasn’t been mentioned since, but we’re supposed to accept that the day or so of bonding out in the wild has been enough to completely change Elinor’s perception of Merida, and has thus radically altered the views that were so central to her character before. The film needs the marriage to be called off to keep with the independent, feminist story it is trying to tell, but it doesn’t build up to this moment properly at all.

Elinor fighting Mor'du
Same with this one; it’s the climactic bear fight (medieval people really need better lights).

Merida hugging bear Elinor

During my research, I came across an excellent and recent video analysis by YouTuber eliquorice, who suggested that a better way of handling the film’s conclusion would have been to remove Elinor’s involvement in the speech-to-the-lords scene and instead move her final change of heart about the marriage to the scene where she is turned back into a human, accompanied by some recognition from her of how oppressive and unfair she’s been by not listening to Merida. I agree with this; the attempt to wrap up two totally unrelated plots in a handful of scenes at the very end of the film feels clumsy at best, and hampers what could have otherwise been a deeply compelling exploration of mother/daughter relations.

Elinor with hair down beside Merida

What the film is missing is a scene or two in the second act to show us, the audience, what exactly causes this change of heart in Elinor; personally, I think that this is exactly what Chapman would have brought in had she been allowed to remain on the project. The final version of the film feels like it’s been hijacked by men who “chickened out” of resolving this female-centred conflict properly, by having only the character who embodies traditional femininity be the one who changes at the end, as though her natural preferences were a “weakness” that needed to be fixed. Elinor was not unhappy with herself or her role at the beginning of the story, but by the end, she’s essentially been forced to morph into an older version of Merida (complete with loose, flowing hair) because apparently this is the only way the writers could see the two of them reaching an understanding.

The truly frustrating thing is that they came so close to resolving these character arcs in an interesting way – the glimpses we get of Merida noticing and respecting her mother’s social prowess hint at her growing appreciation of the complexities of Elinor’s role, just as Elinor’s time living off the land with Merida teachers her a new respect for her daughter’s more physical skills – but the introduction of the bear subplot throws everything out of whack, leading to a lopsided conclusion in which our protagonist basically gets everything she wants without having to grow or change, while her mother is forced to relinquish some of the traits that made her who she was in order to reconcile with her daughter.

Elinor admiring Merida's new dress

As I mentioned above, the dynamic between Elinor and Merida feels like a metaphor for the progression of feminism – or at least, it feels like that was what they were attempting. Unfortunately, the problems with the writing and direction behind the scenes severely diluted this metaphor, with the finished film trying so hard to push Merida’s strength and independence as “right” that Elinor’s traditional femininity winds up being framed as “wrong”, resulting in an unintentionally misogynistic atmosphere that paints Merida’s type of femininity as the ideal at the expense of any other.

I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that there is no right way to be a woman. A major part of feminism is about women securing the right to define themselves as they wish, whether that be as a badass, sword-wielding warrior, a poised and educated diplomat or a motherly, domestic homemaker. Men have long had the right to define their own lives, being seen as people first and men second, and feminism is ideally meant to be about getting women that same right – equality. All forms of femininity are valid, but trying to force someone into a preconceived idea of what she should be is not. Brave starts out on the right track but loses sight of this message before it can finish presenting it. Brenda Chapman, I think, would have finished it properly, and I’m still bitterly sorry that she didn’t get that chance.

Fergus close-up at dinner

Phew! That was quite a ride. Thankfully, the rest of the film’s characters are nowhere near as well-developed, with most of them being little more than caricatures, so they should be much easier to discuss. (They’re also nearly all men, interestingly). Moving on to the rest of Merida’s family, let’s start with her dad, King Fergus of DunBroch.

Judging by what Merida tells us about the formation of the kingdom, it seems that DunBroch is relatively young, perhaps even in its first generation. Fergus was apparently chosen to be King by the other lords because of his prowess in battle, and it’s a title he continues to defend vigorously throughout the film.

Fergus’s relationship with his daughter is generally positive as she grows up, because he’s more accepting of her desires and even encourages her to hone her archery skills. Unlike Elinor, he doesn’t actively try to oppress Merida’s spirit and the two are thick as thieves, as we see when they share a laugh over the suitors. With his mischievous nature, Fergus is also not above poking a little fun at Merida herself at times, too:

Fergus parodying Merida

In a way, while Mor’du represents one, negative potential fate for Merida if she continues down her selfish path, Fergus could be seen as representing a more positive fate for her, being the same kind of boisterous but warm-hearted person that she might turn out to be (if only her mother would let her). That said, he has his own flaws as a parent, displaying a tendency to be rather too soft with Merida and struggling to confront or discipline her – except when it’s for her own protection, such as the moment towards the end when he has mistaken bear-Elinor for his wife’s killer.

As I discussed above, Fergus and Elinor make a good team, because each has qualities the other lacks which balance each other out. They might seem like rather an odd match, but Fergus is shown to be a good listener and cares deeply about his wife, a fact made especially evident by his sheer grief when he thinks she might have been slain by a bear.

Fergus none of your sons are fit to marry my daughter

He may have a soft side, but perhaps the most interesting thing about Fergus is the way he fits in with the broader society he is a part of. Although he is warm and even goofy with the women in his life, he does become much firmer when dealing with other men, such as the lords, showing a sterner side to his nature which better explains how he came to be made King. Like Merida, he’s not great with words and chafes at the requirements of royal etiquette, with Elinor often having to step in to take over as his awkward attempts at speeches falter. Instead, Fergus prefers a more… hands-on approach to solving problems, as you can see above.

One other point that’s worth noting is that while Fergus displays obvious reservations about Merida’s betrothal himself, not considering any of the suitors “fit” to marry her, he takes no action to stop it or find an alternative arrangement. It reminds me of Jasmine’s father, Sultan Hamed, who also wanted his daughter to be happy but somehow didn’t think of changing the law about her marriage deadline until the very end of the film. These men are the heads of their respective societies and hold all the power, but despite being well-meaning they never use this power to free their daughters from the restrictions their societies impose upon them. Perhaps this was intended as a sort of commentary on how real men often stand by and allow sexist practices to flourish, when they could be using their position of privilege to help prevent it. (It certainly sounds like this was a problem at Pixar for a while).

Fergus avert your eyes lads

In terms of his actual function in the plot, Fergus’s only real purpose is to serve as an obstacle to Merida and Elinor in the last act, due to his nature as the “Bear King”. (Not the same thing as the Tiger King, thank heavens). Having become the nemesis of Mor’du in Merida’s youth, when a skirmish between them cost Fergus one of his legs, the King has since devoted great energy to tracking down and eliminating the beast and has a general hatred of all bears. This, of course, poses a problem once Elinor has been turned into one, especially since he mistakenly assumes that bear-Elinor has killed his wife.

Merida is forced to confront her father mano a mano in the climax in order to protect her mother from him, but even she is helpless to stop Mor’du, who arrives soon afterwards. Elinor gets credit for the final victory over the demon bear, and Fergus finally realises the truth after Mor’du is defeated.

Harris, Hubert and Hamish at dinner

Merida also has three triplet brothers named Harris, Hubert and Hamish, the first brothers of any Disney princess. (No, I don’t know which is which). With a significant age gap between them and their sister, they are only about six years old and have little to do in the film, serving primarily as comic relief. After Merida leaves the magical cake she got from the Witch lying out in the kitchen, the greedy boys get their hands on it and accidentally turn themselves into bears, too (which is treated as far less serious than Elinor’s transformation, for some reason). In this form, they perform their most important act – retrieving the key to Merida’s room from Maudie, so they can free her to go and rescue their mother.

Harris, Hubert and Hamish as bears

As characters, they’re actually rather hard to like because of how under-developed they are. They don’t even speak, simply cropping up every now and then to cause mayhem and steal food, with Merida noting wryly in her narration that they “get away with murder”. The dynamic they have with their parents is interesting, because Elinor is gentler with them than she is with Merida, while Fergus seems a tad stricter. We don’t see much, but it’s suggested that they are treated differently by each parent because they’re boys, with their education and training being down more to Fergus than their mother. Judging from their mimicry, they’ve clearly heard his stories about the glory days one too many times!

After pondering for a while why these three were even included in the film, I wondered whether it was the writers’ way of helping to ease the pressure on Merida, who would otherwise have been the royal couple’s only child. The laws of succession in feudal Europe typically adhered to male-line primogeniture, which would have allowed the eldest triplet to “skip over” Merida in line to the throne and thus, perhaps, relieve her of the worry of having to become queen someday and continue the family line. Of course, that wouldn’t change anything if she did eventually marry one of the lords’ sons, but still, it’s a thought.

Lords Dingwall, Macintosh and MacGuffin in line
L-r: Lord MacGuffin, Lord Dingwall and Lord Macintosh

Speaking of the lords, let’s get on to them. The lords Dingwall, Macintosh and MacGuffin, along with their sons and clans, represent the “society” I kept talking about earlier – it is their expectations which Elinor is trying to prepare Merida for, and their friendship which her marriage is intended to secure.

Collectively, these characters serve as one big parody of traditional masculinity, played up to exaggerated effect with their childish tantrums and fragile male egos. To be honest, it feels a little overdone, and I think the film would have been stronger had they been portrayed with a little more nuance. Why must most of the men in this film be such buffoons? To reiterate the point once again, feminism should be about equality – not glorifying one sex at the expense of another.

Still, underneath all this pompous foolishness, they are shown to be fairly reasonable men. The MacGuffins are arguably the most likeable of the lot, with more even tempers and quieter demeanours (at least when they’re not partaking in a brawl). The Macintoshes and Dingwalls are more actively competitive with one another, with Lord Dingwall being saddled with a Napoleon complex for added fun (yep, love that trope…).

Lords shocked at Merida's transgression

Once the lords arrive, the whole trip quickly devolves into a mess of peacocking, with each clan trying to one-up the others from the moment they’re introduced. Each lord drastically oversells their son in an attempt to get the princess’s attention, never realising how idiotic she considers the whole thing. Even Elinor’s patience with them begins to run out, despite her respect for the traditions.

When Merida steps out of line at the archery contest, the lords look shocked and, while we don’t see their immediate reaction, Elinor mentions them being “embarrassed”, which seems to have subsided into a simmering rage by the time we next see them. Having beefed up their sons’ reputations in front of everybody, it was no doubt humiliating to see her emasculate them all so effortlessly and publicly with her archery skills, but they still treat the Queen with respect and wait as patiently as they are able for her to come to some decision about the marriage.

Lords talking to Elinor

Only after the Queen and Merida completely disappear does their patience run out, and with only the hot-headed Fergus left to deal with them, things quickly devolve into yet another brawl. Luckily, Merida returns in time to stop it before it gets too ugly, in the scene where she employs her mother’s diplomacy to settle the question of the betrothal. Notably, she does this by appealing to their egos with reminiscences of their past glories in battle, reminding them that they’re already each other’s supporters, with or without this marriage. It’s saying something that the film depicts the lords on friendlier terms than they’ve ever been after this; the stereotypical male ego-butting only drives them apart, but the “soft skills” of the “feminine” are what bring them closer together.

Young MacGuffin close-up
Young MacGuffin unsure of himself
Young Macintosh close-up
Young Macintosh full of himself
Wee Dingwall close-up
Wee Dingwall surprised at himself

As for the lords’ sons, there’s not really much to be said as they get surprisingly little screen time, despite Merida’s angst about having to marry one of them. Like her brothers, her suitors also get few lines and initially come across as just extensions of their fathers, but there is a little more to them than first appears.

Young MacGuffin is, notably, the only one of the three who Merida shows any slight interest in (something that fans were quick to pick up on, judging from the profusion of fan art featuring the two), perhaps because of his strength. He has the gentlest nature and actually seems quite sweet and funny, so if she did eventually end up having to marry one of the boys down the line, he might be the best pick. (Apparently, there was actually a scrapped storyboard in which she was interested in him, but this was wisely dropped to focus more on the relationship with her mother).

Young Macintosh is hilarious, the medieval Scottish take on a pretty boy, complete with a mop of thick, curly hair and screaming fans. Like his father, he has an enormous ego and clearly thinks a lot of himself, which makes it all the more funny when his poor result in the archery tournament leads him into a total meltdown (“Oh, that’s attractive,” snarks Merida). He’s all about his image and with all his preening and showboating, it’s doubtful Merida would have ever chosen him.

Wee Dingwall, bless his heart, is off in his own little world for most of the time and seems to have the least gumption of the three, as well as being the least physically impressive. With his tufty blonde hair and absent-minded expression, you get the sense that he’s probably the youngest of the suitors, perhaps even younger than Merida herself – but this doltish demeanour conceals the passionate spirit of a true Scotsman. Seriously, when the brawl gets going, his father is setting him on people like an animal, and he fights with the gusto of a lad twice his size. I’m not condoning violence, but my god is it funny when he lets loose.

Young Macintosh talking to Wee Dingwall

As it turns out, once Merida has had her say with the lords near the end, the boys agree with her. They, too, would like more control over their own lives, and we see that they were pushed into this whole marriage thing just as much as she was (“I didnae pick her out; it was your idea!” says Wee Dingwall, in one of only two lines of the film). Their solidarity with Merida could be taken as hope for the future, as the younger generation of men in her life want the same kind of autonomy that she does, showing us that inequality can have negative effects on everyone.

Young MacGuffin speaking Doric behind his father

Kevin McKidd was said to be particularly happy to take part in Brave, because it was the first time in years that he’d been able to use his natural Scottish accent in a film. Even better, the comically misunderstood dialect used by his son, whom he also voices, is an actual dialect of the Scots language called Doric. Used primarily in the north-eastern part of the country, it is spoken in McKidd’s hometown of Elgin, and he would call his mother during recording sessions to ask her to remind him how to say certain things in it.

The name of this clan is also deliciously appropriate for film critics, as MacGuffin (or McGuffin) is a well-known slang term for an otherwise unimportant or interchangeable object which serves only to motivate the plot. (Living MacGuffins are also a thing). Given the suitors’ nature as mere instigators for the conflict between Merida and Elinor, I’d say they qualify, since there’s little to distinguish the three from each other and they play no active part in the story.

Lord Macintosh insulting Lord Dingwall

Regarding the Macintoshes, their name is an extremely common one in Scotland and is one of the most recognisable Scottish surnames, along with Macdonald. It has become known for its connection to anything and everything from coats (the Mackintosh, first sold in 1824), apples (the McIntosh, first discovered in 1811 and the national apple of Canada) and computers (the Macintosh, named after the apple and first sold in 1984). The name’s use here may have been due to Pixar’s connection to Steve Jobs, who was co-founder of Apple Inc. and later played a big role in getting the animation studio on its feet.

Also, animation fans may recognise Craig Ferguson, voice of Lord Ferguson, as Gobber from the earlier film How to Train Your Dragon… which was probably set in Scandinavia, but whatever.

Lord Dingwall I was aiming at you you big tumshie

As for the Dingwalls, their name was likely picked up during the team’s research trip across Scotland in 2006. Dingwall is a Scottish town which is known for having once contained the largest castle north of Stirling, and for being the likely site of a legendary battle between the Clan Mackay and the Clan Donald in 1411. In English, the name means “meeting place of the local assembly”, but in Gaelic, the name (Inbhir Pheofharain) means “the mouth of the Peffery”.

Mor'du attacking in daylight

As we come to the last few characters, let’s spend a moment on Mor’du. The infamous demon bear that menaces the forests around DunBroch takes his name from the Gaelic Mòr Dubh, which means “large, black one”, certainly an apt descriptor for this monster. Towering over even Fergus at about thirteen feet tall, Mor’du is first seen ambushing the royal family on a picnic in Merida’s childhood, an incident which results in Fergus losing a leg and thus swearing vengeance on the bear from that moment on (it’s even hinted that they’ve clashed before). Honestly, his design is amazing and far too scary for a kid’s film, but that’s certainly not a complaint!

Mor'du attacks Merida in the ruins

Mor’du’s backstory is unravelled gradually as the film progresses, with an accompanying short film providing greater detail on his past for those who are interested. As Merida comes to realise, Mor’du was once a human prince of an ancient kingdom – the very kingdom in an old legend that her mother frequently uses as a moral lesson for her. That kingdom was once ruled by an elderly king with four sons, who were set to share rulership between them upon his death. However, the eldest – Mor’du – wasn’t happy with this arrangement, being selfish, power-hungry and violent, so he sought the help of a Witch to change his fate, just as Merida does.

Mor'du as a human challenging his brothers

The resulting spell, of course, turns him into a bear and quickly consumes him, costing him the kingdom and his humanity. Unable to conquer his pride, he is doomed to wander forever after in his bear form, terrorising the inhabitants of the surrounding loch until Merida finally figures out how to stop him. As I mentioned in my discussion of her character arc, Mor’du serves as a wake-up call for her by showing her what could happen if she lets her pride and stubbornness come between her and her mother. By facing Mor’du, a literal embodiment of selfishness, Merida is symbolically defeating her own selfishness too, and her subsequent reconciliation with Elinor breaks the spell before it can consume her mother in the way it did Mor’du.

Mor'du's spirit becomes a wisp

As for the demon bear himself, his human spirit is finally set free after Elinor crushes his tormented bear form with one of the menhirs. After spending countless lifetimes trapped in this form, Mor’du seems to have learned some humility at last, acknowledging Merida with a grateful, if rather haughty nod before his spirit is turned into another will-o’-the-wisp.

While I did enjoy the fearful presence and cinematography of Mor’du, I had some issues with the way he was written. Specifically, there are some conflicting elements in his portrayal which lead to the unfortunate implication that “following one’s own path” automatically leads to ruin (Elinor highlights his independent streak as being his downfall, when such a quality is usually praised in western cultures). The writers were probably aiming for more of a “no man is an island” idea, intending to push the benefits of supporting one another, but instead it comes across as if they were telling Merida – and the audience – to simply tow the line and do as they’re told. Hm…

Brave Witch close-up

The last character with a significant role to play is the unnamed Witch, who makes a fun, hammy cameo for Julie Walters. Merida accidentally stumbles upon her cottage after the big fight with her mother, so the Witch could be seen as representing Temptation – which Merida, unfortunately, succumbs to. To be fair, the Witch turns out to be filled with remorse for the whole mess with Mor’du and has more or less sworn off magic (or so she says), insisting with increasing ferocity that she is only a humble WOODCARVER. However, Merida is no fool and quickly figures out the truth, at which point she promptly propositions the Witch for a “spell to change me mum”, offering her an expensive necklace to pay for it and even buying up every carving to sweeten the deal.

The Witch is a riot, full of manic energy and hawking her wares like a pro, but she becomes shrewder and more temperamental after Merida uncovers her magical side, clearly wary of getting mixed up with high-strung young royals again. Still, she can’t refuse Merida’s generous offer, so with the efficiency born of experience she soon whips up a little magic cake that will, she promises, “do the trick”. Yet as she cheerfully sends the princess on her way, she forgets to tell her a crucial part about the spell and vanishes before she can elaborate.

Brave Witch's head reciting spell

This means that Merida must later return to the cottage in search of answers, this time with her bearified mother in tow. In my favourite gag of the film, the now-absent witch has left behind a magical answering-machine cauldron, through which she informs the princess how to prevent the spell from becoming permanent.

Originally, the script at this point tied the spell more firmly to Elinor’s tapestry, with the words aligning with a set of symbols sewn into it. Once Mark Andrews took over the project, however, the spell was rewritten and the connection with the tapestry was lost, making Merida’s later connection of the two feel flimsier than it was supposed to.

Brave Witch's crow singing
This is honestly the best cap of the crow I could find

The Witch, like many of her kind, has a familiar in the form of an unnamed Crow. He is purely there for comic relief, serving as one of the first clues to the Witch’s true identity when he reveals to a stunned Merida that he can speak (and sing… sort of). The Crow makes a few cracks about Mor’du being easy on the eyes and then helps the Witch with Merida’s spell, plucking one of the girl’s long curly hairs for the final ingredient. He also later attempts to deliver Merida’s woodcarvings to the castle like an impatient postman, telling the guard he “hasn’t got all day”.

Maudie approaching Merida's room

Among the supporting cast, the only other notable presence is that of Maudie, the buxom nursemaid of the triplets. Oh, Maudie. What were the filmmakers thinking with this character? She is a disappointingly one-note hysterical woman, a trope so outdated that it is rarely seen unironically in modern works, yet here’s Maudie. Her main role is to act as a kind of foil to her young charges, the triplets, who consistently outwit her to the point of running rings around the poor lass, leaving her angrily chasing after them and often falling flat on her face in the process.

With Elinor chiefly occupied with Merida’s training, it’s perhaps no surprise that Maudie is left in charge of the boys so often, despite her incompetence; nursemaids were and still are a staple of royal households. I just wish this one could have been treated with a little more dignity. She has almost no personality outside of being made a mockery of by the triplets; her only other function, which is even worse, is to shriek and panic about the bears invading the castle. She’s portrayed as being none too bright and other characters treat her with impatience, but the absolute worst moment is when she’s subjected to a horrendously tacky gag in which one of the triplets literally dives into her cleavage to retrieve the key to Merida’s room. Good lord. For a film ostensibly championing feminism, this moment feels disingenuous, to say the least.

Maudie with Conan of Clan Dingwall
Another blurry shot; these tracking shots don’t cap well, apparently!

Oh, and if that wasn’t enough, Maudie is then randomly “paired off” with the buffest and beefiest of the Dingwall clan (he’s named Conan, apparently) in a last shot at the end, despite the two never being seen to interact at all beforehand. Hysteria, incompetence and cliched romance… yep, the gang’s all here. Poor, poor Maudie.

Angus anxious by the menhirs

To finish this section, I’ll make brief mention of Merida’s trusty shire horse, a sturdy steed named Angus who is basically an ordinary horse with little anthropomorphism for once. Angus is both fun-loving and easily spooked depending on the situation, and like Mulan, Belle and Rapunzel before her, Merida seems to share a close bond with her horse, since she doesn’t seem to have many other friends given her cloistered life as a princess.

There’s also Gordon the Guard, who would be entirely unremarkable if not for the fact that he is John Ratzenberger’s signature cameo role for this film. Given his Scottish accent and very brief screen time, this is one of Ratzenberger’s least recognisable roles in the Pixar canon, and the actor was also one of the few members of the cast to not be from the UK. Gordon appears early on to announce the arrival of the other clans, before being cut off as they fling the doors open and crush him.

Gordon is accompanied at his post by Martin, another guard who is subjected to one of the triplets’ pranks early on when they sneakily cut off half his moustache. Martin also crops up again in a post-credits scene in which the Witch’s crow tries to get the bewildered guard to take in Merida’s absurd order of woodcarvings from earlier on.

Animation

Preparing for the animation on Brave was quite an undertaking, with Pixar completely rewriting their animation system for the first time in 25 years and spending three years developing two additional software programs. One of these was to help with the animation of Merida’s incredible hair, allowing each of the 1,500 individual strands to move and bounce in accordance with proper physics. I must admit, it looks pretty impressive, a vast improvement over the hair from earlier films; when you consider what a challenge it was for them to do Violet’s much simpler hair just eight years before, Merida’s is truly a remarkable achievement. The team for Merida’s hair included six graduates from Brigham Young University’s reputable computer animation programme and their talents really shone with a task of this complexity, making Merida’s hair the highlight of Brave’s animation.

Merida reveals herself at the archery contest

However, even with these improvements to their technology, the team still encountered some limitations typical of computer animation. For instance, the flashback of Elinor singing a lullaby to a younger Merida almost had to be cut, apparently due to the difficulty of animating the princess in toddler form. They eventually got around this by simply scaling down the model of teenage Merida and giving her more youthful features, and the final result doesn’t look any worse for it.

The height difference between Merida and bear-Elinor also caused issues, with the 5’4’’ (163cm) princess utterly dwarfed by her now nine-foot mother. The animators sometimes had to shrink Elinor slightly or sink her into the floor just to fit her and Merida in the same shot!

Brave tapestry

The animators used technology for the tapestry which allowed them to create literally billions of individual threads, adding to the realism of the texture, while elsewhere, one fourteen-person team alone was assigned to duplicate the musculature of horses for Angus. As with earlier productions, the animators also chose to immerse themselves in certain aspects of their film’s world so as to better understand what they were animating, such as by learning their own fight choreography before putting it on the screen.

Plot

Brave was the first Pixar film to be set entirely in the historic past, with certain aspects of it drawing from the real history of both Scotland and Europe in general. Perhaps most notable is the moral tale that Elinor uses on Merida; the ancient kingdom with a king and four sons is a reference to the early king of the Franks, Clovis I, who also had four sons and, upon his death, split Gaul (as France was then known) into four parts for each of them to rule. Unlike Mor’du in the film, none of the sons rebelled, instead ruling jointly as their father had intended and thus forming the new kingdoms of Rheims, Orléans, Paris and Soissons. In the same scene in which Elinor tells Merida the tale, she also uses the famous Lewis Chessmen set to emphasise her point; this was found on Lewis and Harris in the Outer Hebrides in 1831 and may be one of the few complete, surviving medieval chess sets.

936px-NMSLewisChessmen29Lewis Chessmen in Brave

However, historical references aside, the plot is easily one of Brave’s weakest elements. Ooh, boy, where to start? I’ve highlighted my main issues in my discussion of the characters above, but one thing I haven’t touched on yet is how this film is basically a remake of Disney’s 2003 film, Brother Bear. You know, Brother Bear? That film that was most definitely extremely popular and hugely profitable and was not a flop at all. That film that most definitely had a strong, cohesive story team who were on the same page from the beginning, and did NOT – repeat, NOT – write themselves into a corner with an overly complex bear plot. Yes, I can certainly see why the team for Brave decided to draw inspiration from that!

Brother_Bear_Poster

For real, though, the plot of Brother Bear was not well-received when the film came out nine years earlier, yet Brave recycles it so thoroughly that many scenes – especially the salmon fishing part, and the actual transformation of Elinor/Kenai – are damn near identical, right down to having the same lines of dialogue (“I don’t speak bear!”). In both cases, the transformation is used to help provide a stubborn character with a new perspective, but at least in Brother Bear the issue lay entirely with Kenai; he was the selfish one who needed to change. Brave paints Merida and Elinor as essentially as bad as each other, but only Elinor is changed, leading to the implication that Merida can get what she wants without having to learn anything at all (yes, I know she does admit her mistake in the end, but by then the marriage has already been cancelled so she’s gotten what she wanted anyway).

On top of this, the transformation in Brother Bear did, at least, make sense. The story may have been unmanageably dark for a kid’s film, but by having Kenai accidentally kill Koda’s mother and then gradually realise his mistake by spending time with the cub, Kenai’s final decision to sacrifice his humanity, remain a bear and care for Koda in his mother’s place made sense. His development all tied together nicely, with his prejudice against bears as “monsters” being replaced by a growing realisation that they have feelings and lives of their own, and his prejudice against love as sissy stuff developing into a mature, nurturing attitude which finally makes him into the man he was so desperate to become, even if he is now a bear. It wasn’t perfect, but it made sense.

Elinor as a bear choking on salmon

In Brave, turning Elinor into a bear has nothing to do with her later decision to call off Merida’s marriage. Granted, it does play a part in allowing Elinor to better understand Merida and the two do bond a bit, but it’s not enough to justify the transformation, which simply clutters up the story and actually takes the focus off the relationship between the two women which was so nicely built up in the film’s first half. In Brother Bear, it helped that Kenai retained his voice once the perspective shifted to his bear form, whereas Elinor is only viewed through Merida’s still-human eyes and so loses her ability to communicate properly, having to rely on pantomime. Merida herself even cries in frustration, “Why a bear?!”, which pretty much says it all.

I can only restate my opinion that Brave would likely have been a much stronger and more coherent film if Brenda Chapman had been allowed to complete it on her own terms. This story needed to be told from a female perspective because it’s such a uniquely female experience; how could a man ever truly understand the intricacies of a girl’s relationship with her mother? Chapman drew inspiration from her relationship with her own daughter, Emma Rose Lima (whose father, incidentally, is respected animation director Kevin Lima – what a cool family!) and was putting a lot of her own experience into the film; it was a very personal project for her, so having to relinquish it to Mark Andrews can’t have been easy.

Still, to be fair to Andrews, he too had a lot of enthusiasm for the material and was friends with Chapman, doing his best to maintain the spirit of her work while trying to keep in line with the studio’s mandates. Apparently, during the production he and producer Katherine Sarafian would take turns pretending to be each other’s audience to prepare for the big meetings, so there was still a female perspective in there somewhere. (These meetings later inspired the scene where Elinor practices her lecture to Merida on Fergus). If Andrews and Chapman could have worked together as a unified team on Brave like Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee did on the Frozen films, we may have gotten to see a much clearer and more consistent piece of work, but all we can do now is pine for what might have been and hope that this fate doesn’t befall any future Pixar productions.

Cinematography

Say what you will about the writing, but at least the cinematography on Brave was pretty solid. A team consisting of set art director Noah Klocek, shading art director Tia W. Kratter, character art director Matt Nolte and lighting manager Jenni Tsoi worked together to craft the look of the film, and they really made Scotland look gorgeous. I only wish we’d gotten to see more of it! (My one minor criticism is that the film is not very well lit, but I admit that’s realistic for a medieval setting without artificial light).

The filmmakers drew a great deal of inspiration from Scottish cinema throughout production, with Mark Andrews explaining, “Dear Frankie {2004} is a great one with Gerard Butler. Braveheart {1995}, obviously. Local Hero {1983} is fantastic – when Mac leaves the phone, what a great device for his character. We watched a lot of them. The animators just go right into every Scottish film, because if you look at this closely we were analysing how the Scots speak because the sound that they make with that accent comes out very specifically.” The reference to Braveheart is interesting, especially; once the title The Bear and the Bow got scrapped, it’s not hard to guess where they got Brave from!

For authenticity, Pixar actually had three original tartan patterns created to represent three of the film’s four main clans: DunBroch, Dingwall and MacGuffin, with Clan Macintosh wearing a red tartan similar to that used by the real-life Clan Mackintosh. The one you see below is the tartan of Clan DunBroch, which the Walt Disney Company registered with the official Scottish Register of Tartans when the film was released.

Clan DunBroch tartan

The tartan is made up of ocean blue to represent the North Sea (which to be honest is more often grey, trust me), “subdued scarlet” for the bloodshed of the clan wars, deep green for the Scottish Highlands, navy blue to represent the eventual unity of the four clans, and grey for the Scottish people themselves. Pixar took historical reality into consideration when creating the colour scheme, stating that there “was a concerted effort to use hues that were indicative of the less saturated dyeing techniques {used} during the ancient period in which the fantasy film is set”.

While the registration of the tartan was celebrated at the film’s British premiere in Edinburgh, where Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond presented the certificate to Mark Andrews, Member of the Scottish Parliament Alex Johnstone criticised the move (along with other similar entries to the Register, such as the one for Peter Rabbit, created in 2011), calling it “shallow and irreverent”. According to Johnstone, the 2008 legislation which created the Register in the first place was intended to prevent fictionalised entries like these and protect Scotland’s heritage. Still, this wasn’t the first time Disney had registered a tartan pattern for one of their characters – they also did it way back in 1942 for Clan McDuck!

Clan McDuck tartan
“DuckTales! Woo-oo!”

There were, however, many other less controversial homages to Scottish culture included in the film. After Merida first returns from the Witch, for example, she prepares a neat tray to properly present the magic cake to her mother, and adds a purple flower, the thistle, on the side. This is Scotland’s national emblem. Her home of DunBroch castle also bears a strong resemblance to Eilean Donan, one of the country’s most famous real castles, which was founded in the thirteenth century and became the stronghold of the Clan MacKenzie and their allies, the Clan MacRae. Eilean Donan has been frequently featured before in other films, TV shows, advertisements, fashion shoots and even music videos, so it’s a well-recognised symbol of the country.

Mark Andrews did note that the inclusion of such a castle might not be entirely accurate for their setting, saying, “We’re talking fantasy Scotland between the 8th and the 12th centuries. There’s a mix of different ideas in there. They didn’t actually have stone castles until way later, but you don’t want to go to a movie and watch a thing that’s just built with a bunch of timber and be dramatic”. (I’ve looked into it and Castle Sween, built around the turn of the 12th century, is apparently the country’s oldest surviving stone castle).

1280px-Eilean_Donan_Castle_Panorama
Eilean Donan
DunBroch castle
Castle DunBroch

From a cinematic standpoint, my two favourite scenes are the archery contest and the discovery of Mor’du’s lair. In the former, everything about the build-up and staging of Merida’s defiance is expertly handled, especially the framing of the shots to exclude the men and emphasise the battle of wills between Merida and Elinor. Using the very weapon which Elinor so disapproves of, Merida frees the wild curls that her mother worked so hard to tame, splits the seams of the uncomfortable dress that she was forced into and, after finally freeing herself from the many trappings of the patriarchal expectations Elinor was imposing on her, proceeds to utterly emasculate her suitors with her superior skills, penetrating the bullseye of the last target so deeply that she splits Wee Dingwall’s arrow in two. With minimal dialogue, the scene speaks volumes about where Merida’s character is at during this stage of the story.

Merida's arrows in a row

Later on, the will-o’-the-wisps lead Merida and Elinor (who is now a bear) deep into the forest, way out to the ruins of an old castle on the edge of a gloomy loch, shrouded in mists. The score falls quiet and the suspense builds beautifully as Merida tumbles into the remains of the old throne room, where she begins to explore the relics left behind. This is the moment where she first connects her splitting of the tapestry with the moral tale of her mother’s, and while I may have issues with the way that was written, the scene itself is excellent – the growing horror on Merida’s face as she puts two and two together, the shocking flashes of Mor’du’s past as he devolved into the monster, all culminating in that final revelation…

Mor'du looms from the darkness
“Mor’du…”

At this point, the wonderfully horrifying design of Mor’du takes over as he bursts from the shadows and attacks Merida. Notably, her mastery of archery is of no use at all against him and for the first time, she feels completely helpless. Heck, I was pushing twenty when this came out and it still gave me chills watching it in theatres, it’s just such a thrilling sequence. With Elinor’s help, Merida just barely makes it out alive (her mother employs the same technique that will later stop Mor’du once and for all, by pushing a column on top of him) and the two gallop off back into the mists.

Merida and Elinor on horseback at the end

I talked in my timeline article about the accuracies and inaccuracies of Brave’s costuming – Elinor is the closest to the style of the period – but one thing I noticed in particular about it was the use of hair as a symbol of the struggle between Elinor’s uptight, traditional form of femininity and Merida’s freer, “modern” take on it. I may not like the fact that Elinor is basically transformed into her daughter’s older sister by the end, with her natural style subsumed into Merida’s, but I did like the way their changing hairstyles highlighted their own inner changes.

Merida pulls hair out of wimple

Merida’s hair, wild, curly and bright red, symbolises her own spirited and carefree nature, and she typically wears it loose whenever she can. Elinor, by contrast, has straight, dark hair that she wears tightly bound in two long braids, always looking neat and tidy with never a hair out of place. In the film’s first half, Elinor is seen vigorously brushing and hiding Merida’s curls under a wimple, and she also depicts her with bound hair in her tapestry, as though trying to capture a vision of the girl which doesn’t truly embody what she’s like. Merida’s habit of stubbornly pulling a lock of hair out from under the wimple every time Elinor’s back is turned emphasises her rebellious streak and refusal to adhere to the standards her mother is setting.

Only much later, at the end of the film, does Elinor’s change of heart allow her to embrace her daughter as she is, creating a new tapestry with Merida’s curls shown in full flow and wearing her own hair loose for the first time. (It’s amazing hair too, reaching almost to the floor). The implied message is that Elinor has “loosened up”, and while I disagree with the idea that her traditional femininity needed to be changed, I do like the way her new hairdo symbolises her improved relationship with her daughter.

Soundtrack

Brave was apparently the first film to use the Dolby Atmos sound format, with almost half of the fourteen theatres set up to show the film in Atmos located in California and the others scattered across seven more states. In addition, Brave was also the first Pixar film not to be scored by either Randy Newman, Thomas Newman or Michael Giacchino.

Instead, the filmmakers sought out Patrick Doyle and the London Symphony Orchestra, thus also making this the first Pixar film up to that point not to be scored in Los Angeles. Doyle had had plenty of prior experience in historical and Shakespearian epics such as Henry V (1989), Much Ado About Nothing (1993) and Hamlet (1996), as well as major blockbusters like Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001) and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005), so he was a pretty safe bet for composer.

Brave Elinor and Merida

To try and capture some of Scotland’s national flavour, Doyle incorporated numerous Celtic instruments such as bagpipes, a solo fiddle, Celtic harps, flutes and the bodhrán, as well as adding a more contemporary feel with electronically treated dulcimers and cimbaloms. He even spent some time in the Hebrides studying “unaccompanied Gaelic psalm singing”. “I employed many classic Scottish dance rhythms such as reels, jigs and strathspeys, which not only serve the action but keep it authentic,” said Doyle. His score is melodic and atmospheric in the quieter moments, but my favourite part has to be the bagpipe piece being played by an apathetic band during the brawl after the clans’ arrival.

Elinor singing lullaby to young Merida

While Brave was not to be Pixar’s first musical, it does still contain a few songs composed by Doyle and others. Among Doyle’s songs is the beautiful Gaelic lullaby, A Mhaighdean Uasal Bhan (Noble Maiden Fair), which is sung by Elinor to a young Merida in a flashback during a storm. The piece recurs in three different variations woven into the fabric of the score, and the Gaelic vocals were performed with great tenderness by Emma Thompson and Peigi Barker (I honestly had no idea Emma Thompson could sing this well). Brave was the first Disney film ever to feature the Gaelic language and it adds a great deal of authenticity to the moment – truly an inspired choice on the part of the composer, there.

Fergus singing drinking song

There’s also the drinking song, Song of Mor’du, which Doyle co-wrote with Steve Purcell. This is performed with gusto by Billy Connolly, Scott Davies, Gordon Neville, Alex Norton, Carey Wilson and Doyle himself during the scene where Fergus is attempting to “entertain” the angry lords after Merida’s archery debacle. Purcell and Doyle incorporated several Scots words into the lyrics (distinct from Gaelic) and it’s a whole lot of fun with its rolling, jolly rhythm, but it’s better out of context as you can’t really hear it properly in the film.

Merida and Elinor fishing together

The filmmakers also brought in other musical artists to help with the soundtrack, in addition to Doyle. Chief among these was composer Alex Mandel, who wrote Into the Open Air and created the music for Touch the Sky, which he co-wrote with Mark Andrews.

Into the Open Air is a gentle, heartfelt number performed by Julie Fowlis over the scene where Merida teaches her mother to fish in the river. The scene itself might not be much better than its corresponding one in Brother Bear, but I greatly prefer this song to that film’s more on-the-nose number, Welcome. It’s much sweeter and less in your face lyrically, almost like another lullaby, emphasising the new clarity with which Merida is seeing her mother and fitting the moment of bonding between them perfectly.

Merida climbing the fire falls

Earlier in the film, we have Mandel’s other song and perhaps the film’s best-known, Touch the Sky. This is easily my favourite, with a lusty beat and more soaring vocals from Fowlis accompanied by some spirited percussion in the background; it sticks in your head long after the film ends. The song plays as Merida frolics on her day off, firing arrows and riding her horse to her heart’s content, completely at ease and in her element. It does a good job of capturing the sense of exuberant release Merida feels in these moments as she shakes off the restrictions of royal life, but also conveys the promise of Merida’s independence in its determined lyrics.

The latter two songs were produced by composer and arranger Jim Sutherland, who introduced Doyle to a number of the Celtic musicians featured in the score and also discovered young Gaelic singer Peigi Barker, who voiced young Merida.

Brave credits image

Over the end credits, we then finish off with an uplifting Mumford & Songs number called Learn Me Right, which they performed with the English musician Birdy, who was only sixteen at the time – just like Merida. Producer Katherine Sarafian said of it, “Learn Me Right is an amazing song. I feel something every time I hear it. Mumford & Sons sketched out a piece that would do justice to the culminating moment of the movie, underscoring the emotion, heart and the lessons learned between mother and daughter. They really found that moment of truth in the story we were trying to tell and it takes the movie to a new level at the end.” The piece went on to be nominated for a Grammy Award (losing to Taylor Swift and The Civil Wars’ song Safe & Sound) and Mumford & Sons rewrote it into Not With Haste for their 2012 album, Babel.

Elinor says remember to smile

There’s not a great deal to discuss with the voice acting because of the limited cast. It practically goes without saying that such talented performers as Emma Thompson, Billy Connolly and Julie Walters are all fabulous in their roles, and Kelly Macdonald brought a terrific teenage petulance to Merida despite being well into her thirties when she voiced the part. Thompson is probably my single favourite among the cast because of the nuance she’s able to give Elinor, keeping the uptight Queen sympathetic even in her harsher moments and demonstrating a surprising mastery of the accent to boot. That small moment before Merida is presented to her suitors, where Elinor struggles for a moment before telling her, “Remember to smile”, is particularly well done.

Final Verdict

When Brave was released, it was dedicated to Steve Jobs, who had passed away the year before. The film opened in 4,164 theatres, then a record high for a Pixar film, and quickly became the highest-grossing, non-sequel animated film of the year (it was out-grossed only by the fourth Ice Age and the third Madagascar), beating Disney’s Wreck-It Ralph by a fair margin.

That’s all well and dandy, but in a notoriously controversial decision, Brave also then went on to scoop that year’s Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, leaving a majority of animation fans feeling as if Ralph was robbed. Even now, eight years on, this is widely believed to have been a major misjudgement on the part of the Academy voters, as both fans and critics generally preferred Ralph. While Brave did get largely positive reviews, they often came with a few caveats: for instance, Roger Ebert noted, “The good news is that kids will probably love it, the bad news is that parents will be disappointed if they’re hoping for another Pixar ground-breaker”, which about sums up the general reaction. Outside the US, the film also did quite well in the UK (perhaps surprisingly), as well as Ireland, Malta, Mexico, Russia, France and the Maghreb region.

Debate raged among reviewers about Merida and whether or not her story was an improvement over the typical Disney princess “formula”, although it was generally appreciated that she didn’t wind up with a boyfriend by the end of her film, which was a novelty at the time. However, the fires were stoked further in 2013 when it was announced by Disney that Merida was to be “crowned” an official Disney princess, complete with a full “coronation” ceremony which had become the standard since Tiana was inducted three years earlier. Then came the outrage when a new “standardised” version of Merida debuted for the princess line-up – she now had smoother, sleeker hair, rounder eyes and a more slender figure, which had many viewers up in arms. (Reminds me of the similar controversy around Tiana’s redesign for Ralph Breaks the Internet).

Merida's redesign

Girl-empowerment website A Mighty Girl filed a petition to Disney not to alter Merida’s design in this way, and one of its 262,196 signatures was from none other than Brenda Chapman, who felt that Disney had “betrayed the essence of what we were trying to do with Merida – give young girls and women a better, stronger role model”, and that the makeover was “a blatantly sexist marketing move based on money”. Too right it was. Thankfully, the petition seemed to be successful, as shortly after it appeared Disney removed the redesigned Merida from their official website and replaced it with her original image. Mind you, if you run a basic Google image search for the princess line-up, you still see pictures featuring Merida’s “makeover” design, so the damage may have been done.

Anyway. Brave went on to be released to Blu-ray, DVD and digital download in November of 2012, and also received a new 4K Blu-ray release last September. Regarding possible sequels, the film’s rather lacklustre reputation over the years since its release seem to have quashed any plans Disney may have had for one, although director Mark Andrews didn’t rule it out when asked once by The Scotsman. (Please don’t, mate, just let sleeping dogs lie).

Here at the end of the review, I’m left with very mixed feelings about Brave. You might think I’ve been a bit harsh with it (especially if you’re a fan), and that’s fair, but it’s just that I can’t help lamenting the wasted potential of this project. An animated film by women, for women, about women really would have been a valuable addition to the sausage fest that is the Pixar canon, and the failure of this vision due to John bloody Lasseter still leaves a bitter aftertaste even now. I’m not blaming Mark Andrews for that as I know he genuinely tried to save this film, but he just didn’t have the same personal understanding of the story that Chapman had. At least now, with Lasseter out of the way and several up-and-coming female directors poised to take up Chapman’s mantle, the creative women of Pixar look set to break into the spotlight and let their own voices be heard at last.

As for Brave, I don’t hate it by any means, I swear. It’s just that it’s very, very uneven – I love the film about a mother and daughter struggling to navigate the complexities of a patriarchal society, while maintaining and developing their own relationship, but unfortunately it’s mixed together with a lazy remake of an already weak Disney film about people being turned into bears to learn a lesson in perspective. This could have been great, but as it is, it’s definitely one of Pixar’s weaker efforts (although being associated with the Pixar brand alone is enough to make it seem worse than it really is, as I discussed in my Onward review). Rather than giving it a sequel, I would suggest Disney consider remaking it, since they’re so keen on doing that at the moment. They probably won’t as Brave is still relatively new, but I’d much sooner see this remade than have another renaissance masterpiece butchered.

Thank you so much for reading everyone, and for being patient as usual while I battled to get this review finished. I don’t know if any of you have noticed this, but being in lockdown is making it even harder to focus than usual; whole days sail by in which I spent more time on YouTube than my writing, it’s like my drug. I have a problem! Anyway, now that this one is done, I intend to get started on that First Thought series I promised, beginning with The Adventures of Prince Achmed. Then, the next full film review will be of How to Train Your Dragon, which I have far less of a problem with than Brave and hopefully won’t put off for so long. Also, just so you’re forewarned: WordPress is introducing a new editor next week, so the formatting of my next articles may look a little messy while I’m getting the hang of it. Until next time, take care and staaay animated!

My Rating – 3/5

References
I don’t own the art book for this film (but I’ve listed it below for fans), so I relied only on web sources for this review:
(I don’t own this, but it exists) The Art of Brave (2012) by Jenny Lerew
By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32173788 – credit for poster
https://www.tartanregister.gov.uk/tartanDetails?ref=10641 – credit for the image and info on Clan DunBroch’s tartan
https://www.tartanregister.gov.uk/tartanDetails?ref=2412 – credit for Clan MacDuck tartan
https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=83115741 – credit for Lewis Chessmen image
By Stefan Krause, Germany – Own work, FAL, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18303661 – credit for Eilean Donan panorama
https://www.digitalspy.com/movies/a481862/brave-princess-merida-sexed-up-redesign-pulled-from-disney-website/ – credit for Merida redesign comparison image
https://www.songfacts.com/facts/mumford-sons/learn-me-right – credit for info on Learn Me Right
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wRjHL8kbkZk – an excellent video essay on the film by eliquorice which highlights the story problems; I couldn’t have written this piece without it!
https://apprenticeofthechosenone.wordpress.com/2015/08/23/disney-pixars-brave-historically-accurate/ – a useful summary of the film’s historical accuracies and inaccuracies
https://www.polygon.com/2018/12/17/18131286/the-prince-of-egypt-director-brenda-chapman-dreamworks – an interesting interview with Brenda Chapman that came out just after my Prince of Egypt review; wish I could have referred to it then! She’s very complimentary about Jeffrey Katzenberg and also discusses Brave, saying she was ultimately still proud of it
https://ew.com/article/2012/08/15/brave-director-brenda-chapman-breaks-silence-getting-taken-off-film-heartbreaking-devastating-distressing/ – Chapman’s statement on her removal from the film, after its release
https://www.indiewire.com/2012/06/director-mark-andrews-talks-replacing-brenda-chapman-on-brave-the-future-of-john-carter-more-109183/ – Mark Andrews discusses his appointment as director
https://www.thewrap.com/pixar-sexist-blogosphere-angry-studio-replaces-woman-director-brave-21874/ – an article discussing the industry’s reaction to Chapman’s removal
https://www.digitalspy.com/movies/a374625/brave-preview-mark-andrews-on-pixars-scotland-set-fantasy-tale/ – an interview with Mark Andrews on the production

Why Pixar’s Brave Is a Failure of Female Empowerment


https://entertainment.time.com/2012/06/21/pixars-brave-the-princess-and-her-unbearable-mom/ – a pair of critical reviews
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brave_(2012_film) – Wiki page
https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1217209/ – IMDB profile

11 Replies to “Film Review: Brave (2012)”

  1. Wait, Sean Connery could have been in this film?? Darn, I wish that had happened!

    Your points about the marriages of Merida and Mulan hit the spot. Merida seems to just be rejecting proposals or even marriage just for her sake. But as you say, if you were Prince William, it would be a different story totally. And I think that’s probably my biggest issue with Merida and why I find her annoying and the film okay at best.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for highlighting eliquorice’s video essay, it really nailed why I was never a big fan of this movie. I’m still disappointed by all the wasted potential and how the gender inequalities at Pixar played a massive role in that.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I really wish Brenda Chapman had been able to finish this (screw you very much Mr. Lasseter), because it’s got enough potential that I still find it enjoyable, but you can really tell Mark Andrews was trying really really really really REALLY hard to be “feminist”. The end result just screams all the stuff I rail against in my princess reviews: traditional femininity bad, reject it in every way and act like a boy or you’re not really Strong. Not to mention the treatment of men in this film. Superiority is not equality, people, come on. And considering it came from a male writer it comes off as a liiiiitle bit sad. Wreck it Ralph got completely robbed. That said, Fergus is one of my favorite Disney Dads of all time (I just think he’s hilarious), the animation is gorgeous (you can see Merida breathing in the archery scene!), and delightful songs (Touch the Sky is my favorite too!), so I do like it. It’s just too flawed and bogged down with what I call “fauxminism” for me to love it.

    Sidenote: Oh sweet baby Jesus why is WordPress introducing a new editor again? I just got used to the last one!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, Fergus is hilarious haha. At least the animation fans know which film truly deserved the award that year! I’ve got my hopes up for Raya when she finally arrives next year, since it’s not a princess film; perhaps she’ll be freed of the pressure to be “feminist” and will wind up being a good character.
      Apparently so, I wish they wouldn’t, it messes up our formatting!

      (Btw, sorry it took this long to see your comment; it got caught in my spam filter for some reason. I always check it after a new post goes up!)

      Like

  4. What exactly happened behind the scenes of Pixar aside (and yes, I am really wondering in hindsight, too), another aspect which was problematic was Chapman’s public attitude towards Disney Princesses. Okay, trying to do another approach to a Disney Princess Story is fine, but Chapman (and those who supported her) kept emphasising on how forward-looking her character is, pointing to her refusing to marry, the lack of marriage at the end of the movie and her wielding a bow. Which lead to the Disney Princess fandom going: Really? Been there, done that! First Princess who was unhappy about an arranged marriage was Aurora, first one who actually fought against it was Jasmine, first one who didn’t end up with her love interest towards the end of the movie was Pocahontas, and honestly, Merida’s bow which she never really uses all that much outside of the competition is cure, but Mulan defeated a whole army with one shot!!!

    At the end of the day Merida (and sadly also the Princesses who came after her btw) felt like a step back after the layered and interesting characters we got with Mulan, Tiana and Rapunzel. What is especially grating is the moment when her mother is clearly in pain and the only thing Merida worries about is if she changed her mind yet. It is already pretty questionable to put what is basically a mind control poison into the food of your own mother, but okay, teens do sometimes really stupid things they don’t think through (even if this is an attempted mind rape which makes me extremely uncomfortable). But that she doesn’t immediately feel guilty the moment her mother is in pain and THEN needs the whole movie and a cut tapestry to understand how wrong she was makes her easily the least likable Disney princess of them all. And yet. Chapman acts as if she is the best since sliced bread. Urgh!!!!!!

    And then, to add insult to injury, it gets the damned Academy Award! I have nothing against Chapman, I would have cheered for a female director getting acknowledged in he field of animation, but NOT for a movie she didn’t even finish and in what was clearly a political move. THAT year in animation was so damned strong, even a nomination of Brave could only be just argued with the stunning animation. There were at least three movies which were more deserving of the award: Wreck-it Ralph (which a lot of experts felt should have won), Rise of the Guardians (to the day my favourite Dreamworks movie which sadly didn’t get the attention it deserved) and Paranormal (which might have broken through an actual hurdle by featuring a gay character in a children’s movie, even if this was just a small detail of the story). In this line-up, Brave looks pedestrian. Because that’s what it is. Merida is to this day the least popular Disney Princess between the fans of the franchise. And one shouldn’t forget: The fans of the franchise are mainly women. It is pretty obnoxious to tell them that what they enjoy isn’t good enough.

    What irks me too is that Disney actually listened to the complains about Merida’s redesign when it didn’t listen to complains about the redesigns in general by the actual fans for years. It was not just Merida they ruined that year. You should have seen their idea of Belle, she looked like a hooker in that line-up!!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. All excellent points! I long for the days of Kida, Esmeralda, Meg and especially Mulan… women with goals, personalities, layers…
      I love Rise of the Guardians too, it’s coming up very soon and I’m looking forward to it.
      Oh trust me, I remember. Mulan looked absolutely atrocious, too.

      Like

      1. Oh, don’t hurry, a proper article over Rise of the Guardians belongs to any point between Christmas and Easter.

        I am just sooooo frustrated with Disney nowadays. They spend so much time to do lip service to the notion of equality, that they forget to simply write interesting characters

        Liked by 1 person

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