[Spoilers dot the article to follow like so many will-o'-the-wisps!]
Early on in Brave, rebellious Merida–she of 1,500 fiery curls–leaps on her Clydesdale and gallops out into the woods. The movie’s vision of its heroine at home in the Scottish countryside is breathtaking, despite the generic spread-your-wings-and-fly soundtrack that accompanies it.
Slinging arrows and mounting craggy rocks to duck under waterfalls, Merida is strong, fast, and physically fearless. Like another archery-loving 2012 movie heroine, Katniss Everdeen, she’s easy and knowledgeable in the wilderness. But while Katniss depends on the woods for her survival, Merida takes to the trees in order to escape stifling expectations about how a princess is supposed to behave.
In a pop culture landscape over-saturated with Disney princesses, Merida stands out from the pack to some extent. Not only is she utterly uninterested in getting married (or even falling in love at this particular moment in time), the movie doesn’t try to change her mind. Instead, Brave centers on her fight to choose her own destiny — romantic and otherwise — and on her troubled relationship with her mother, Queen Elinor. Elinor’s ideas about femininity, manners, and tradition are as oppressive as the wimple she uses to hide Merinda’s unruly mane.
With her slightly gap-toothed smile, round face, and freewheeling curls, Merida is also physically distinct from the usual Disney bunch. However, her appearance is perhaps most remarkable for the modesty of its deviation from the doe-eyed, bobble-headed norm. Her body may be more athletic than Cinderella’s, her features less delicate than Belle’s–but she’s still white, slender, and conventionally pretty. It’s great to see beauty standards expand, but the minuteness of the subversion feels a bit like a lost opportunity.
Sadly, the same could be said of Brave as a whole. I get excited just thinking about the possibilities of a movie that uses the word “brave” to sum up a girl. It’s a descriptor that’s been associated with masculinity for far too long. But oddly enough, after that first scene in the countryside, the movie doesn’t give Merida many opportunities to demonstrate how courageous she can be. She’s good at standing up for herself, as when she enters a tournament in order to win her own hand in marriage. And certainly she’s not timid or fearful. But because she’s never far from home or from her mother’s watch, the audience never gets to see her really test her mettle.
It’s true that Brave flips the script on the usual parent-child dynamic. Once a spell accidentally turns Elinor into a bear, Merida assumes responsibility for protecting her mother and reversing the magic before it’s too late. But it’s a bit disappointing that Pixar’s first female protagonist is so closely tied to her mom that she can’t just get into trouble solo for a little while. Finding Nemo centered on the relationship between a parent and child too, but it allowed Nemo to have adventures on his own. Merida, on the other hand, never appears to be more than an hour’s horseback ride or so away from the family castle.
Escaping your family, even temporarily, isn’t a prerequisite for independence. It can definitely help, though — particularly for women, who have historically been tethered to hearth and home by patriarchal ideas that keep domesticity, marriage, and motherhood sacrosanct. Family bonds can be wonderful, of course. But sometimes they weigh a good story down.