Pixar’s Brave conveys the plight of young Princess Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald), a girl who seemingly has it all: loving parents, great hair, mad archery skills, and enviable beauty. But she still desperately wants to “change her fate,” a goal which becomes her mantra—her fate presently being one in which she marries the son of one of her father’s allies, following tradition rather than her heart. Merida is plucky and rebellious, more Katniss than Bella, and when she discovers that the only requirement for participation in the tournament which will decide her future husband is being the firstborn of one of the kingdom’s leaders, she enters the tournament herself in an attempt to control her own future.
Merida’s mother, Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson), is mortified: What will the neighbors think? The film establishes Elinor as the main roadblock to Merida’s happiness, suffocating her daughter with convention when Merida would rather be climbing mountains, hunting monsters—doing any number of things that don’t involve marrying one of the buffoons she’s presented with at the tournament. She becomes increasingly desperate to escape this fate, and doesn’t hesitate to enlist the help of a witch on her quest for freedom. She asks the witch to supply a spell that will “change” her mother, presumably supplanting her conservative view of Merida’s future—a plan which, of course, backfires disastrously.
Merida’s father, King Fergus (Billy Connolly), is known as the Bear King, having lost his leg in a battle with a gigantic bear in the film’s opening scene, so it’s a cruel irony that the result of Merida’s ill-advised spell, purchased from the witch, is Elinor’s transformation into a near likeness of her husband’s trophy from that fateful battle. The history of fairy tales is full of bears; a popular Scottish fairy tale—and Brave indeed takes place in medieval Scotland—tells of a girl marrying a handsome prince who, during the light of day, is cursed to take the form of a bear, until he endures five years of trials to break free. But the curse Merida brings upon her mother is more permanent: The two women have two days to figure out how to break the spell or Elinor will remain a bear forever, giving in to a savage nature which bubbles beneath the surface throughout the film as she tries to keep hold of her humanity—and keep herself from eating her daughter.
It’s no accident that the film’s voice of tradition is the one transformed into a savage beast. Brave is very much a story of a pretty girl getting what she wants, and Merida keeps her beauty and her wits while her mother, helplessly clumsy in her new form, scarfs down live fish straight from the river and tries without success to conceal her unavoidable nudity. Even Elinor’s redemptive speech to the kingdom about the right to marry for love is in fact delivered by Merida, who intuits the words based on messages conveyed by her mother’s gesticulating paws; the old ways have been literally silenced, with no thought as to why they existed in the first place. The only lesson Merida learns is that she should be more careful in her dealings with witches.
Brave flirts with actual commentary on the plight of women and responsibility (a girl fighting for her own hand in marriage is an interesting possibility with a lot of weight), as well as on the struggle for balance in relationships between mothers and daughters. But ultimately the film offers nothing more than a caricature of a well-worn conceit (a princess doesn’t fit into her shiny box, so she just breaks all the rules and does what she wants), neatly repackaged for another generation of young moviegoers who haven’t met Princess Jasmine from Aladdin and don’t realize that they’re eating yesterday’s leftovers.