What makes a movie original? The underwhelmed reviews of Brave that I’ve read seem to focus on how it’s just not as original as some other Pixar fare: Toy Story, Wall-E, Up, Finding Nemo, Cars, Ratatouille, The Incredibles, Monsters, Inc., A Bug’s Life. These previous movies were set in contemporary times, the future, or a slightly different, more magical world. Their male protagonists are varied: a toy, a robot, a boy, a fish, a car, a rat, a superhero, a monster, a bug. Brave—Pixar’s first feature with a female protagonist—provides us with Merida, a princess on the Scottish highland. Cue the snooze-fest for reviewers: a Disney princess, yes, we’ve been here before.
Or have we? In the last line of his review, Roger Ebert says, “‘Brave’ seems at a loss to deal with [Merida] as a girl and makes her a sort of honorary boy.” He’s referring to the fact that the movie ends with Merida in control of her fate (as much as any person can be). In that case, is this the same Disney movie that we’ve seen before? Maybe he calls her an “honorary boy” because her fate is still undecided at the movie’s end. She’s off to further adventures, like the protagonists in the other Pixar films. She hasn’t been married off yet.
Unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to review this movie while it was still fresh in my mind. Luckily, most of what I felt was covered by Lili Loofbourow’s excellent commentary at The New Inquiry (excerpted below):
Faced with a princess story, the reaction has been a sort of kind disappointment. We’ve heard all that! the reviewers say, and it’s a bit, well, boring. “What’s happening to Pixar, it seems, is what’s happened to everything the Mouse Factory has bought, from beloved children’s books to funky Times Square: It’s being Disneyfied,” says Stephen Whitty of the Star-Ledger. “This one finds Pixar poaching on traditional territory of Disney, its corporate partner,” says Rober Ebert. “We get a spunky princess; her mum, the queen; her dad, the gruff king, an old witch who lives in the woods, and so on.”
And so on.
A stranger to our film industry might reasonably suppose, reading those sentences, that the American cinemascape is littered with “spunky princess movies” that center around the main character and her mother.
“Brave,” writes Christopher Orr, “is a rather conventional tale, with echoes of Mulan, The Little Mermaid, How to Train Your Dragon, and countless others. Like the flight of an arrow, its arc is swift but not hard to anticipate.” It’s a well-worn genre, the Spunky-Princess-Who-Doesn’t-Get-Married-(Or-Experience-Any-Attraction-To-Anyone)-And-Her-Mother story.
I wonder, though, whether any of the foregoing critics who’ve tolerantly yawned at Pixar’s latest effort could name a Disney princess besides Mulan whose mother is alive, let alone named.
It’s almost as if the critics have missed the constitutive element of the Princess Story in its capacity as cultural and commercial myth. As if the omnipresent witch/evil stepmother doesn’t capitalize on precisely that fictional hole—the vacuum left by an absent mother. e.g. Bambi, Star Wars, Star Trek, Hugo, you name it.
And yet, in Brave, there is a live mother, named and all. And then a remarkably boring thing happens: this interloping mother who has no place in this ordinary, predictable princess story suddenly becomes central to it. She gets turned into something that keeps on getting misread as a monster, something her loving and well-meaning husband has dedicated his life to tracking down and killing for the sake of his own story, which is built around victory and revenge.
It’s a bit as if, having heard the word “princess,” the reviewers all stopped listening and missed Brave’s real project, which is to quietly but determinedly recuperate the “princess story” from some of the qualities for which it’s been so universally condemned.
. . .
Virtually everyone in the film (except poor screaming Maudie) is Princess Story brave. Everyone jumps eagerly into a fight and reacts courageously to physical danger. In fact, its very ubiquity seems to dilute its fictional value: If everyone is brave, why are we making a big deal of it?
Its sheer abundance makes us stumble over our own expectations of what bravery is supposed to do. Bravery is good! is our default position. We need more of that for our girls! But too much bravery sucks, it turns out: it costs people legs. It turns political summits for nascent kingdoms into childish free-for-alls. And for our hero, Merida, courage doesn’t achieve the victories we expect fictional bravery to produce. She doesn’t slay Mor-du. She’s no Mulan; her archery, despite her skill, is unhelpful. All this, in a story featuring a warrior princess, should make the mind boggle: Why would a studio create such a character in order to make her real crisis be her relationship with her mother?