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I saw Brave the first day it was out, along with several friends.  There’s a lot of wonderful things about the movie Brave, including strong female characters, a lot of funny moments, beautiful animation, and magical moments.  I also need to put some kudos into good advertising as well. There’s some movies that pull all of their good lines and moments for the trailers, then there is nothing new or unexpected or interesting about it by the time you see the rest of it in the theater.  Brave is the opposite of that.  Some of the best moments are ones that you will never see in the trailer because they have a good story and took care not to give spoilers. I think Brave is well worth seeing in theaters, but didn’t quite live up to my high expectations for the film. (If you are okay with the spoilers, you can continue reading).

After the movie, one of my friends said “I think Merida is my new favorite princess. I know I say that after every princess movie, but I think she’s going to stay my favorite.” We talked for a while about favorite princesses and why.  Her daughter has a clear favorite for Belle from Beauty and the Beast.  She says she has never understood why, but the two have a lot in common.  Belle reads, and her daughter reads. Her daughter has an intellectual disability and will never graduate from reading the large picture books. Most often nowadays, she just flips through books and magazines for the pictures, but she loves books, and she loves Belle.  I can get that.

I have a fondness for Belle too.  Belle was pretty independent, she knew what she wanted even though she wasn’t sure how to get it, and more importantly she knew what (and who) she didn’t want.  Unlike many other princess tales, she actually had time to get to know and fall in love with the person she would marry.  I understand that Beauty & the Beast has a lot of unhealthy messages for women about the nature of relationships, including the dreaded “if you love each other enough, he will change for you” message that keeps a lot of women in unhealthy relationships with an unrealistic fairy tale dream that things will change, but in terms of character qualities, I think Belle herself is a pretty good role model.

She asked who my favorite princess is, and the answer for me was murkier than it used to be.  I had picked Tiana as my favorite princess a while back, from The Princess and the Frog. I liked that she didn’t start off as a member of privileged economic classes, but that she worked hard for what she had and pursued her dreams with determination.  She was so close to making her dreams happen on her own, even though there were things outside of her control about economics and skin color that were endangering her dream.  So it took some magic, learning to lighten up a bit, and some reminders about what was truly important in life.  She got to know her prince too, and they both were better for it.  She is the one that I felt the most in common with.  (I’ll admit that I have a harder time thinking of Tiana as my favorite princess now that I am feeling that my hard work will never pay off: I put in all the work, but I still need that wish upon the star to make it come true during this economy.)  Being born into a position of political power or wealth or magical destiny got in the way of me being able to truly empathize with Snow White or Sleeping Beauty.

To some extent, this happened for me with Merida too.  I may have rebelled against what I was told I needed to do to be an adult, and some of the lessons the mother was teaching seemed pretty familiar.  I disagreed and had my own ways of rebellion that were never so dramatic simply because I wasn’t a princess, and no one really cared about my rebellion outside of my immediate family.  Nothing depended on me.  She had to be a princess to start with, otherwise no one would care, and that goes back to my bitterness of about the modern economy and those born into money or power who never have to do anything to earn it.

I liked that there were people of varied shapes and sizes competing for her, all of whom had ways they were lacking other than the standard princely shape.  Rather than writing them all off as comic relief, it seemed to me to be a nice acknowledgement of humanity.  We have our flaws.  No one really stood out as being the princely ideal, and even the person who was presented as the most physically impressive, able to pluck arrows out of the air as they flew at him, never actually said anything in the entire film.  I liked that. It was a nice change to see that the guy they drew has having the most impressive physique having absolutely no influence on who the princess was going to end up with.

The part where things felt really contrived for me was about mending the rift of pride. It was nice that they both had to learn something to mend the rift, but Merida’s resistance to admitting that she had some responsibility in creating the crisis seemed like it went beyond a childish denial of fault, and into the realm where she’d have to be kind of stupid not to have some basic understanding of cause and effect. She asked for the spell, she gave the cake, she denied any responsibility in the matter?  I can agree with her wanting to take charge of her own fate and be free to marry who she wishes to when she is ready, and I can cheer on her independence, but I can’t identify with a character who has such poor logical skills to not be able to see & acknowledge her role in creating the problem.  In order to have a rift for them to mend, though, she has to resist that knowledge and deny responsibility until the last moment.  Thus she does.  This fiery independent princess becomes stupid and illogical for the sake of fulfilling the plotline, which is why this ends up feeling so much more contrived and awkward than other Pixar films.

Still, there’s not a lot of films for this age that carry the positive positive mother-daughter messages this film does. Stepmothers or adoptive mothers (in the case of Tangled) are often villainous, while biological mothers are are often silent background characters if they are alive at all.  To see a strong, living, and expressive mother in a princess film was a wonderful change of pace. I think it is a film that is well worth seeing, even if it won’t become my favorite princess movie.

I expected the plot to go in another direction when I saw the single stone figure torn asunder from the other three in the ruins.  This spell had happened before.  I thought in order to mend the rift, she would have to mend both rifts by choosing to marry the demon bear Mor’du, restoring his humanity and healing not just the rift with her mother, but the rift among her entire people. I expected after her mother had caved to her daughter’s desire to change the rules of the land, I thought it would be amazing to see Merida end up making a countersacrifice of allowing Mor’du redemption after so long trapped under the curse, and freeing her people from the demon bear’s wrath.  I thought Merida would become the stuff of and legend that spanned generations, and was disappointed to find the story was so much smaller.

It does make sense the way they set it up.  After two days, the bear body became permanent and would drive a person into a feral mindstate forever.  Mor’du had failed to redeem himself in a two-day timespan and was trapped by the consequences of his actions until death, and there was nothing Merida could do to stop that.  I suppose I should feel that he made his decision, he failed in his quest, he wanted power and deserved the consequences.  Instead, I feel sorry for him precisely because he had the cognitive power to redeem himself stripped away forever.  I like to think that people can change, even though sometimes it takes time and usually takes more time than two days.  I feel sorry for Mor’du in ways I don’t feel sorry for a lot of other fairy tale villains.  I can accept villains with logic seeking power, wealth, immortality.  They made a choice and they continue making the choices they feel will lead to their goal regardless of their impact on others.  Mor’du lost the power to choose, and that seems to me to be a great unfairness that I was hoping would be rectified in some way that was a bit more humane than simply killing him.  It didn’t have to through marriage, but I would have liked healing the rift to be more than just healing mother & daughter. It was a story built of epic and legend that failed to meet up to its scope to me.

My companion said that Merida is her favorite because Merida is a princess who doesn’t need a man to complete her, who doesn’t even have prospects of such by the end of the movie. She has won her right to choose her spouse as well as the time to be a child for as long as she still wants to be one and not have to face her adult responsibilities for a while longer.  She can still be a daughter as part of her family.  This seems appropriate given her age, and yet it seems a bit down-letting to me that all of the personal growth she has had during the film. It is a coming of age story that is never completed because her epic struggle to win her freedom leads her back into being a child and living with her parents at the end. She will have more freedom to be the kind of adult she wants to be with rules that suit her better when she decides she wants to be an adult, but there is no clue when that will be.  This kind of ending seems appropriate for the father-son story of Finding Nemo where Nemo is clearly too young to understand the dangers of the world on his own, but given the level of independence Merida has shown in the story along with her age, it seems disappointing for Merida.  She is at the age which would have been considered adulthood in traditional fairy tales back in the days when people lived shorter lifespans, but now there’s the modern day message that she is clearly too young to be an adult.

This movie may be for all the adults who want their kids to stay kids a while longer and for their kids to demonstrate an understanding of the lessons their parents are trying to teach them, but it feels more to me like wish fulfillment movie for the parents.  She wins something too, which is the right to marry who she chooses. Given that she doesn’t have a love interest, her victory is losing something she doesn’t want (the forced marriage) rather than getting something fulfilling in its own right and thus doesn’t feel quite as fulfilling to me as if she had met someone she wanted to marry and would have been restricted from doing so due to her birthright.  It is a long-term win that sets itself up for a sequel, or more likely a bunch of fanfic on the internet speculating about who Merida will fall for in her future.

On an intellectual level, I get the value of having a movie that gives young girls the message that they don’t need a prince to be happy.  They can be brave and have exciting magical adventures on their own.  The downside is that unlike Nemo, Merida doesn’t really meet new people or make new friends during her adventure, so at the end she can share her joys only with her family. I place a strong value on friends and lovers and the wonderful people in my life.  The idea of having an epic adventure with magic and wilderness survival and ancient ruins, and then having to return to only my family at the end and a year without dessert seems like a let-down, even if it does come with a better relationship with my mom.