Disney’s Brave Both Hits and Misses

SPOILER WARNING: This post contains pretty big spoilers for Disney’s animated adventure, Brave. If you don’t want to know key plot points, then you should ride on my friend.

The problem with high expectations is that once you have them, it’s very difficult to let them go. PIXAR has spent almost two decades building up a loyal, praise-filled fan base for their cinematic offerings, and with good reason. For years the studio consistently put out the best animated adventures with masterpieces like Finding Nemo, Toy Story and The Incredibles that pushed the limits of great cinema. Recently however, other studios have come into their own and produced some amazing animated adventures that are just as good, if not better than the best PIXAR has had to offer. Movies like Tangled, How to Train Your Dragon and Despicable Me have proven that PIXAR no longer has a lock on the genre it helped pioneer back in the 1990’s.

Enter their latest film, Brave. The story is a familiar one – oppressed child longs to find her own destiny out from the watchful eye of her overbearing parent. The hero, in this case the flame-haired Merida, resents her mother’s attempts to turn her into a prim and proper future queen and in doing so embarks on an adventure to “change her fate”. As I watched the amazing first act of Brave, the obvious parallels to another classic Disney animated film, The Little Mermaid, quickly became apparent. Like Ariel, Merida is unhappy with her lot in life and longs to be elsewhere. Both characters are strong-willed women of action and they both enlist the help of a magical witch to help them in their quest to alter their destiny.

Unfortunately for Brave, that’s where things take a turn for the worse. In seeking the witch’s help, Merida receives a magical pastry that she is to feed, not to herself, but to her mother. It’s obvious that this pie is both powerful and dangerous, having come from a large cauldron of steaming black goo, and yet Merida thinks nothing of sneaking it back home, presenting it on a plate and having her beloved mother swallow it. Now, you may dismiss this as simply a necessary plot point, but the act itself didn’t sit well with me. Our heroine, the person we’ve just spent the entire first act getting to know and love, suddenly feels it’s perfectly okay to possibly poison her mom. Feeding the pastry to Queen Elinor isn’t an act of bravery, it’s one of cowardice. Unlike Ariel, who boldly chooses to take the risk and the danger of Ursala’s life-changing spell onto herself, Merida lays that burden upon the feet of her unsuspecting mother. When the spell first sickens and then changes her mom into a hulking grizzly bear, Merida repeats again and again that it’s “not her fault” – selfish brooding from a character we’re supposed to be rooting for. It is true that by the end of the film Merida regrets what she’s done and would never do such a thing ever again, but she should never have done it in the first place. Any time a character displays a lack of empathy for their loved ones, it makes me like them less.

Other problems in Brave include a meandering second act that basically turns into one long, predictable chase scene, a delightful, originally-written villain we only see once and a seemingly un-motivated change of heart for Queen Elinor, who out of nowhere suddenly decides it’s okay for her daughter to marry out of love instead of tradition. Perhaps the biggest missed opportunity however comes in the form of Merida’s passion and love of archery. Merida is given a bow at an early age and quickly becomes an expert markswoman. She spends her free days riding at break-neck speeds through the glenn, getting off incredible shots on horseback, and bursts into tears when her mother throws her beloved bow in the fire (another wasted opportunity for great character development – we never get to see Elinor give the rescued bow back to her daughter). Given how important archery is to our main character, it is disappointing Merida never gets to use her skills in any truly heroic fashion. The archery contest with the suitors ultimately ends in tears and doesn’t change anything. When Merida uses her bow to catch a fish for her transformed mother, a few seconds later, mom is ankle deep in the river and catching her own dinner. In the climatic finale, it isn’t a skillfully placed arrow that lands the crushing blow to the cursed Mor’du, nor do her shots even slow the animal down. I liken Brave’s ill-use of the bow to that of giving Luke his magical lightsaber and then never letting him duel Darth Vader.

Now here’s the good news. Despite all of these things, Brave is still worth seeing. The visuals are simply stunning. From our firey heroine’s amazing raven locks, to the misty woods inhabited by glowing wisps, the art direction for Brave is incredible. In my eyes, it rivals that of Finding Nemo and Wall•e and alone is worth the price of admission. Also a joy are the realization of the secondary characters like Merida’s father, King Fergus brilliantly played by Billy Connolly, the hilarious Triplets and all of the clansmen who come to compete for the hand of the fair princess. There are many moments in Brave when I laughed out loud or was in sheer awe of the beauty of what was seen on screen. I also enjoyed the Scottish settings and accents which felt surprisingly fresh for a movie of this genre.

Was Disney’s Brave good? Yes. Was it one of their all-time best? No. Is it worth seeing? Definitely yes. Would I see it again in the theater? No. I have to say I’d reach for DVD’s of The Incredibles and Wall•e before Brave, but in the end I can recommend the movie because of its sincere effort to put a fresh new face on the title “Disney Princess”. It’s obviously crafted with blood, sweat tears and love which I appreciate very very much. At the same time I wish Mark Andrews, Brenda Chapman and Steve Purcell (the film’s co-directors) had a clearer vision of the central character. She does things that aren’t worthy of truly great heroes and of all the characters in Brave, changes the least when the story is over. Brave is like an arrow loosed in the heat of the moment, full of promise and anticipation that doesn’t quite fly true. If you enjoy tales of adventure and PIXAR films in general, you’ll most likely love it. I just wished Brave had hit the bullseye.


  1. Brave’s beauty is in how it boldly breaks away from established conventions and focuses on one relationship. Re: “selfish brooding”, you’re right. Merida is a self-absorbed child who grows through the course of this film. That’s what I love about it. “Mermaid” takes the easier, conventional route and makes Ursula the villain. Brave does no such thing. The villain is not the witch, but actually a daughter and mother’s self-centeredness. This not a heroic story about affecting change out of an individual’s sheer force of will (or spectacularly skilled archery). It’s about reconciliation, and how fate stripped away a mother and daughter’s jaded selfishness, as they learn to empathize and love each other again.

  2. BC,

    All very good points, and if Brave had fulfilled on them in a convincing way, I might feel differently about the film but it did not. There simply wasn’t enough “story business” between Merida and her mom to make either of their change of hearts convincing. When Merida delivers the speech in the great hall, Elinor’s sudden relent allowing her daughter to break with tradition seems hollow. The scenes at the stream and in the woods were simply not enough to make this drastic shift in her character believable.

    Also, Merida may “grow up” by the end of Brave, but if she does it is only because of the danger she put her own mother in, and not because of any true internal change. She begins the movie not wanting to marry for tradition and ends the movie not having to marry for tradition. She begins the movie loving her mother but feeling misunderstood, and ends the movie loving her mother *more* and getting her wish, which is her mother listens to her more. Of all the characters in Brave, Elinor is the one that is affected with change the most, not our hero.

    Lastly, about the archery. I didn’t say the movie had to be about her bow and arrow, but when you build a story and give the audience a trailer that features it so predominately, you want to see it played out. Even if Merida didn’t use her bow to actually *save* her mom (something that I still argue absolutely should have happened) the writers should have most certainly included the scene where Elinor gives the burnt bow back to Merida. That scene alone would have held such emotional context it would have gone a long, long way to making the character growth meaningful.

  3. Merida goes from blaming the situation on the witch to accepting full responsibility. She also realizes the need for and accepts her political role (of which I feel the seeds were planted in her upbringing, she just had to be humbled and witness real hardship/threat). These felt like the signs of growing up and maturing to me.

    Can’t true internal change happen in response to mistakes we make? Merida exhibited that teenage angst where harming the parent you love actually seems like a good idea. Hurting the ones you love happens on both sides of this parent-child relationship.

    I do agree about how the movie was marketed. The focus on archery was an attempt to appeal to boys, the demographic least likely to appreciate the core of this story. And by the way, both Brave and Prometheus’ overly aggressive marketing campaigns showed us so many key scenes that their impact was blunted during the actual movie.

  4. I completely agree with the poisoning the mom scene. I felt incredibly uncomfortable that our heroine was knowingly poisoning her mom, and as her mom was feeling dizzy and could’ve died, all she cared about was herself.

    Furthermore, it was an awful message that for both Merida and her mom to see each other’s point of view, the mom had to be silenced and have Merida teach her.

    I felt rather sick watching (SPOILERS ahead) the dad fight the bear-mom and possibly even going to kill her, a situation Merida caused from her wish. Then for the daughter to fight her father from killing mom and shouting “I won’t let you kill my mother!” – what kind of family movie is this?

    Sure the last 15 minutes were heartfelt and the movie is gorgeous, but this was not up to Pixar’s usual standards. The slapstick cheapened the movie and the emotional sequences rang false. I recommend families rewatch “Tangled” instead – that movie got it right with a heroine that’s both strong, relatable, vulnerable and a good role model.

  5. Completely disagree about the “poisoning her mom” scene. Merida has led a sheltered life of privilege. That’s fostered a profound naivety in her. She knows nothing of people with malicious intent, as no one in her world lives that way.

    Merida’s naivety is reinforced further as her mom becomes ill shortly after eating the cake. Twice she asks if her conviction on the wedding has changed. Most people would have abounded the questions and tended to the mom’s health. Merida, in her innocence, assumed the nausea would pass and leave her with a more agreeable mother.

    Regarding the archery: it’s one thing to hit benign, immobile targets that you mastered years ago, and another to take down a violent, terrifying foe. Merida’s behavior during the final battle was entirely appropriate; she sent arrows into the bear but, much like a rookie boxer who steps into the ring for the first time, she was completely unprepared for the real thing. In fact, if that massive, deranged and hyper-violent bear was taken down by a naive and pampered, teenage girl with absolutely zero combat experience, I would have been livid.

    We’ll have to agree to disagree on this one, Ged. My only complaint was with the triplets. Where they mute? Something wrong with them? I wanted to get to know them better.

  6. Hello my name is Geoff.
    I would like to say I loved the movie “BRAVE”, I was so amazed with each actor and actress. There personality just lepta off the screen, I would shear hope they make a sequel to “BRAVE” with all the same people, and with great effort in making something so simple to be wonderful to be around with family and friends.
    Go work Pixer hope to see more of your work with actors and there personality light up the big screen.

  7. Tangled, Despicable Me and How to Train Your Dragon were not Pixar films. Google it.

  8. Penelope, I didn’t say they were. I said:

    “Recently however, other studios have come into their own and produced some amazing animated adventures that are just as good, if not better than the best PIXAR has had to offer. Movies like Tangled, How to Train Your Dragon and Despicable Me have proven that PIXAR no longer has a lock on the genre it helped pioneer back in the 1990′s.”


  9. BC and Dave said most of what I intended to say after reading your post, but I also wanted to respond to the following:
    “…selfish brooding from a character we’re supposed to be rooting for… Any time a character displays a lack of empathy for their loved ones, it makes me like them less.”

    This is part of what I liked about Merida – she is a teenaged girl. She is more real and easier to relate to than any of the other Disney princesses combined: she is not perfect, and she is not a victim. She has a hand in creating her own trouble here, and she learns from it. Believably, I thought. Also, it allows space for some redemption and the kind of growth that makes them better people/contributors to society in general, whereas the traditional Disney princesses experience none of that.

    I also liked the scene at the river with her “mama bear” because you could see her mother realizing for (perhaps) the first time that her daughter is capable. That’s such a basic, but fundamental thing to their dynamic, and an effective catalyst for the change in her mom.

    I agree with you about the bow in some ways, as surely that could have been a wonderful scene. However, I liked that it had to fall to Merida to make a restorative gesture (that yes, also happened to help her mom) of mending the tapestry. The biggest, and most important gift the mother gave to her daughter was not the return of the bow, but the gift of her trust in Merida’s capability and the openness to allowing her to make an important decision (like a marriage partner) based on those capabilities.

  10. As someone mentioned elsewhere, I believe that Merida is an anti-hero and it’s troubling that many people chracterize her behaviour as merely bratty or headstrong. During one of her seemingly many fights with her mother, we see Merida angrily wave a sword around and vandalize her mother’s tapestry before running away. I wonder if she still would be just “bratty” if, in a modern day setting, the teenager pulled a gun during an argument and shot a hole through a family picture on the wall prior to storming off! “To change her fate,” Merida then contracts with a witch of unknown repute to poison/drug her mother. The violence against her parents culminates with the hero, in defence of her mother, chopping off her father’s peg leg. One could theorize that her mother had a change of heart simply due to her fear of her “headstrong” daughter. It’s sad to say that I fear for the parents of children that look up to this possible future felon as a role model.

  11. I get what you all mean about her being a selfish child, but you’re focusing to much on single details instead of them as a whole. The mother’s change of heart wasn’t sudden or hollow. It occurred over the period of time when the mother and Merida are in the forest, and by the river. Both their hearts are changing then and they are realizing the errors of their ways. When Merida was in the hall and giving her speech, she had by then realized that she would have to go through with a marriage. At the same, her mother saw an opportunity to release her daughter from the law. It wasn’t sudden. As for the use of the the lack of her using her bow for any big changing moment, the bow and her archery were only meant to be the first domino to fall. They were not part of the solution. That was to come from the mending of the bond.

Comments are closed.