Editor’s note: This is part of a series of stories exploring what Gordon professors are up to in between semesters. Communication arts professor and film reviewer, Rini Cobbey, takes a look at why the popular new summer PIXAR film is not your typical children’s movie.
By Rini Cobbey
The more dimensional Disney movie images get, a friend of mine recently observed, the more dimensional the characters are, too.
The latest Disney-PIXAR and fairytale princess movie, Brave is a familiar fantasy that goes refreshingly beyond its formula, with welcome (if not earth-shattering) depth and shades. It’s witty, pretty, and exciting: a sort of healthy, playful development in the realm of coming-of-age cartoons, and worth hanging out with on a summer afternoon.
Merida is the oldest child of a big bear of a fun-loving king and his more stoic yet empathetic wife, the queen. The time has come for the adolescent princess to select a prince to marry from among the three who compete for her hand.
Visuals in this mountainous forestland are stunning – the most intricate PIXAR setting I’ve seen, with colors, textures, shadows, and details complementing the age-old story of a willful youth fighting for self-determination.
A wild-haired young woman with nonconforming but not-so-wild hopes, dreams, and skills, Merida isn’t ready for her prescribed destiny. She and her mother struggle separately and then together to strike a balance between responsibility and loyalty to the ways of their land on the one hand, and youth and spontaneity on the other.
The story’s adventure unfolds as Merida tries to find a way to avoid picking a prince right now, while at the same time respecting her parents’ rules and her relationship with them. In keeping with its fairytale genre, there’s magic, danger, and mystery as Merida encounters a witch, bears, and will-o-the-wisps. What there is not is what makes the movie winsome. This is a plot development I was set up—by decades of preceding flicks—to anticipate, and which happily never transpires, as well as some characters who don’t fit within flat, cartoonish molds.
“Above all a princess strives for, well, perfection,” Merida’s mother the queen instructs. But in her brief (“well”) hesitation lies the tension between doing what’s expected and being true to who you are and what you have. Nobody’s perfect, because no real person is static and fully pre-formed, least of all a teen who wants to explore, play, and grow.
“I’m the princess, I’m the example,” Merida acknowledges. She doesn’t rebel out of some pouty, shallow teenager entitlement; she understands that there are stakes and privileges in her life, not just whims. More than simply whining “don’t tell me what to do” or “stop oppressing me!” she wants to do what she’s good at (which happens to include being a kid for a while longer). After receiving a bow and arrow for her birthday as a young girl, Merida’s vocation is born, in what feels to her like unfair conflict with the trajectory her parents have planned.
Defying a simpler formula, Brave’s queen and mother isn’t pure evil; she regrets throwing her daughter’s bow in the fire instead of cackling like a mean stereotype. When magic renders the queen vulnerable and dangerous, she and Merida learn to communicate and work with each other out of fierce but evolving mother-daughter love, even as they maintain distinct priorities and personalities.
Physically, Merida looks as (relatively) real as she acts. She pops out of a ridiculously tight dress to shoot arrows in a competition. To be who she is and wants to be, after all, she has to wear clothes that fit. Merida is svelte, but almost proportionally possible. (Her hair, on the other hand, may strain the bounds of believability.)
In this story, young men competing with each other to prove their manliness look silly, as they should, just as young women in uncomfortable dresses with perfectly coifed hair and impossibly tiny feet and waists do.
“Legends are lessons. Our kingdom is young, our stories are not yet legends,” Merida reflects at one point. And that’s where Brave fits in our own land’s tradition of animated fairytale princesses (and more broadly, stories about mother-daughter relationships and characters bumbling between childhood and adulthood). In our cultural youth, we’re bursting out of the bad habit of stories celebrating young women and men conforming to grown-up responsibilities and perceptions too young. No more perfect than Merida can be, even so Brave has fun testing its boundaries.