“Our legends are lessons. They ring with truth.”
We’re back with Disney again. I don’t know why.
Brave, as the title perhaps implies, is set in a vaguely medieval version of Scotland. Merida, princess of clan Dunbroch, rebels against her parents as they attempt to betroth her to a prince from one of the other clans, to strengthen the alliances between them. She goes to a witch to find a way of temporarily punishing her mother, but, this being Disney (OK, Pixar, but whatever), things go Horribly Wrong and her mother turns into a bear. Will Merida be able to undo the spell before it’s too late?
The first, and most obvious, thing to note about Brave is its efforts at a certain measure of authenticity. Unlike pretty much any animated fairytale I can pull out of the top of my head, it grounds itself very definitely (very defiantly) in a specific time and place, with its outrageous Scottish accents, its red-haired heroine, its Nac Mac Feegle-esque clans. This isn’t a subtle or a nuanced portrayal of a country, but it is a determined one. Scottish or death. Perhaps more surprisingly, it also looks quite perceptively and quite sensitively at the cultural contexts for misogyny and freedom of choice; its placing of emphasis on community is broadly correct for the period, its realisation that, for real princesses (as opposed to Disney ones) marriages were made to bind together communities rather than for the Western cultural touchstone that is True Love.
This is, I think, why the thematic motif of the bear works well in the film. Early in the story, the defiant Merida is told a cautionary tale about a prince who refuses to follow his father’s wishes, tearing the kingdom apart. Much later in the film, it turns out that this prince, um, turned into the demon-bear Mordu, shadowing the mutual betrayal of Merida and her mother when their disagreement causes Merida to turn the queen into a bear. The bear, in other words, symbolises what happens when we forget that we are part of a community; when we try to branch out on our own without considering others. And, following the human/animal binary to its logical conclusion, the film is telling us that civilisation consists of community; that without the ties that bind us to our families, our clans, we may as well all be bears. It’s this lesson that Merida has to learn before her mother can turn human again: that sometimes we cannot have what we want at the expense of others. The destruction of clan Dunbroch is always a real and tangible threat in this film – Merida’s parents aren’t making her marry just because they are malicious and Evil; quite the opposite, in fact.
The whole film, in other words, is pointing Merida towards doing what her family are asking of her. Which is why the ending, in which she asks that everyone be free to marry whomever they wish – a proposition greeted by mutual agreement – seems to pop up unearned and unsignalled. It’s too easy, too simplistic a resolution to a story that feels otherwise grounded in cultural realities. It trades the strength of community for individual happiness, which is, you know, exactly what the rest of the film is asking us not to do.
I still think that, at root, the problem is that animated children’s films have no idea what to do with feminism: they keep enacting this struggle between tried-and-tested modes of storytelling (the princess story) and the need for something more progressive, with decidedly mixed results. Perhaps it’s simply time to leave the princesses alone for now.