I'd been anticipating the movie for months, for a variety of reasons. A curly haired princess! With agency! And warrior abilities from the get-go and not after a training montage from a Love Interest! After this post, Husband stopped by the Disney store to buy me a Merida doll to take to the hospital with me during my surgery. That doll became something valuable to look up to: Merida would be strong after surgery. Merida wouldn't cry over a little thing like this. Merida would do what the doctors ordered and suffer lightly the physical therapists and their whims.
All this without even having seen the film yet. Such is the power of our idols, I suppose, but she filled a gap that I needed filling.
I was furious that my surgery prevented me from seeing Brave on its opening weekend. (I seriously considered buying tickets anyway, just to help the opening box office sales. I really want Hollywood to get that strong women protagonist movies like Brave and The Hunger Games are financially a safe bet.) But it may be all for the best that I had to wait a few weeks before I could hobble to the movie theater and sit straight up for two hours, because the four or five girlfriends who wrote saying, essentially, Oh, you haven't seen Brave? I did, and I ... I liked it. Yeah, I think you will too, probably, mentally prepared me for the possibility that the movie, while good, might not set my world on fire in the way I wanted it to.
And, well, it did and it didn't.
Here are all the things I liked about Brave.
I liked that it's a story of a mother and a daughter coming to understand each other, in much the same way that How To Train Your Dragon was about a father and son coming to a similar understanding.
I liked that it's a story that begins with a female protagonist who is strong and independent, and it ends with a female protagonist who is strong and independent. Whatever transformations of character happen from the opening titles to the end credits, never is Merida's essential Strong Independence changed.
And I can't stress strongly enough how important that is: this isn't the story of a weak girly girl becoming strong, because this girl starts out strong. Our first scene of Merida is her getting her first bow as a small child; our next glimpse of her is years later as a young woman, honed into a strong warrior by years of passion and practice in her craft. Merida is badass within the first five minutes of the film, and she's a badass entirely of her own making. (Well, with some encouragement from Dad, but still, the level of dedication that Merida must have put into her training is awe-inspiring.) So let's be clear, this isn't girly Mulan cutting off her hair to go train in a montage: Merida is a fighter from the get-go.*
* Note: There is nothing wrong with a woman being girly. Nor is there anything wrong with a woman cutting off her hair to go train in a montage. I'm pleased with the variety represented by Brave, not with the contrast in and of itself.
Nor is this the story of a strong girl becoming feminine and realizing that she does need a man after all. Merida starts the movie insisting that she's not ready for marriage yet, and she may never be ready for marriage. She explicitly brings that up as a possibility. And the movie does not even try to contradict her. There's no love story here, not even a hint of one. There's no inkling that Merida is falling for anyone or that she ever will. Gods help me, but please don't let them make a sequel to this movie, and then we can all have head-canon of Merida being a lesbian or asexual or any number of all-the-things we're not allowed to have in these kinds of movies. How rare is this, to have a character in a movie -- any animated movie -- that doesn't end up heterosexually pair-bonded by the credits? So this isn't Tiana realizing that dreams and careers are nice and all, but life isn't balanced if there's not a man in the equation.**
** Note: There is nothing wrong with a woman deciding that her life would be better balanced with the addition of love and/or a family. Again I'm pleased with the variety represented by Brave, not with the contrast in and of itself.
I liked that Merida really is badass and her badassitude isn't limited to a few key battles staged for the promos. There's a scene near the end where Merida is defending her turned-into-a-bear mother from her father and four clans' worth of men, and she holds her own. Against her father. With a sword. And it's incredible. And her voice, as she growls out to the crowd that no one is going to hurt her mother... it's such a powerful thing that the memory of it still sends shivers down my spine. This isn't an essentially gentle girl like Rapunzel, only fighting when circumstances force her to; this is a young woman who seems to truly belong on the battlefield defending what's important to her, a warrior in a very real sense of the term.***
*** Note: There is nothing wrong with a woman not wanting to be a warrior or only fighting when forced to do so by circumstances. Just to be clear, I'm pleased with the variety represented by Brave, not with the contrast in and of itself.
So with all this, why didn't Brave light my world on fire the way I expected?
To be honest, I think it's the plot vehicle of choice. Being Turned Into Something and then Racing Against The Clock is a narrative device that needs to go hibernate for a few decades so it can seem fresh again, in my opinion. The device is as old as The Little Mermaid, and as recent as The Princess and the Frog. And it's not even like the bear angle is new: I don't remember anything about Brother Bear except not liking it -- well, and I do remember Husband fell asleep halfway through and, when roused, specifically asked me to let him go back to sleep, thank you very much -- but I remember that somebody done got turned into a bear. So there's that.
And this is one of those times where I kind of wish I had less experience than I actually have. Because if I hadn't seen the last ten or twenty movies that used the Turned-Into-Something, Racing-Against-The-Clock narrative vehicle, I probably would have thought Brave was the coolest thing since sliced bread dipped in liquid nitrogen. But because I have seen the last ten or twenty movies to use that particular plot coupon, I couldn't help but feel like the movie was a little... draggy at times. So there's that.
I still liked the movie. I liked the characterization. I liked the stunning visuals, the gorgeous music, the incredible pathos of the tension between family members which was then mapped on tension between friends and neighbors. Putting aside the Otherization of the cultures involved -- which is another post for someone else to write, and they should probably throw How To Train Your Dragon into that post as well and examine the movies together because I felt like there were a lot of similarities in that regard -- I enjoyed the juxtaposition of humor and drama within the movie. And if all that sounds like a tentative recommendation, it's still a recommendation nonetheless.
I'll be buying Brave... eventually... once the price comes down to something reasonable. I want to encourage Hollywood to keep it up, to give us female protagonists who are strong and capable from the get-go, who don't get less so as the movie wears on, and who boldly bring up "I may never heterosexually pair-bond, so deal with it" as a genuine, no-kidding possibility. Do you hear me? I want more of this.
Brave didn't light my world on fire from a story-telling perspective. But that's okay because it's still a step in the right direction. Now we just need more. Lots more.
Update: Something else that I liked but forgot to work in above, was that the three suitors for Merida were on-board with and instrumental in the acceptance of her proposal to let young men and women make love-matches instead of matches based on combat prowess.
This makes Brave a very rare example of (multiple) young men choosing to buck the Patriarchy in favor of a feminist cause led by a strong young woman, even though doing so is not necessarily in their favor. I say that Merida's cause is not in their favor because the weakest-in-combat young man has already technically "won" the right to Merida's hand, and the other two young men could reasonably expect to win in the case of a rematch. None of them, in contrast, have been given any sign that Merida would choose them for love.
Although there are problematic issues with the way that Brave approaches men and culture, I appreciated a rare and heart-warming example of young men supporting a feminist cause lead by a strong young woman, without any immediate benefit to themselves.