Hair — lots and lots of it — has always been a beauty trademark of Disney heroines. With the exception of Snow White’s chin-length 1937 bob, long hair — signifying traditional femininity, and the leisure to mess with hairpins — has been de rigueur among the ladies, from Cinderella’s upswept 1950s pouf to Rapunzel’s outrageous 2010-style golden carpet of tendrils in Tangled. Over at Pixar Animation Studios, meanwhile, the few heroines featured in their movies tend to favor businesslike short cuts à la Helen Parr/Elastigirl and Edna Mode in The Incredibles. (Ratatouille’s Colette Tatou also rocks a chic bob.) Brave, the newest feature from Disney-owned Pixar, makes headlines first of all because the movie applauds the heroics of a female person for a change: a Scottish princess named Merida (voiced with irresistible authenticity by Kelly Macdonald). And second of all because Merida is defined by a huge unruly tumble of long bright-red curls that, in its refusal to be combed, let alone pinned down, signifies the opposite of ladylike passivity. Her untamed tresses are a Samson-like manifestation of her strength and independent spirit.
A strong-willed lass, Merida exasperates her mother, Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson), with her pronounced lack of interest in daintiness, needlework, gentleman callers, and all other forms of stereotypical feminine activity. She charms her burly, good, but somewhat galumphy father, King Fergus (Billy Connolly, who else?), for the same reason. (She’s also a role model for her tiny triplet brothers, spunky mischief-makers with their own heads of matching ginger squiggles.) Merida’s passion is for the archery at which she excels — she loves loves loves the thrill of it. Still, as Mama continues to push her daughter toward betrothal to a suitable lord for the good of the kingdom, Merida pushes back, hard, until in her rebellion she finds a witch (Julie Walters) who can cast a spell to change her woeful female fate.
The royal rebel gets more than she bargained for. So does Brave, which turns out to be much less about the qualities that mark a heroine built to interest a 21st-century audience of girls, boys, and accompanying adults, and much more about the complexities of mother-daughter relations. And also about the emotionally violent struggle often built into the dynamic, especially when the expectations of mothers, shaped by past experience, don’t match the plans of daughters living in the changing present. Written by a coed team and directed by Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman, the movie displays its own independent spirit — its Pixar-ness — in the filmmakers’ willingness to let conflict play out at length. There’s characteristic psychological sophistication (a company strength) when it comes to the depiction of family dynamics. Mother and father don’t always know best.
I’m being intentionally vague here about the effects of the magic spell. But it’s safe to say that this particular enchantment wasn’t what Merida had in mind. That’s a very Disney dilemma, as Tiana from The Princess and the Frog can attest. In the wee lass’ struggle to break that haywire curse, with all the detours, obstacles, funny coincidences, and aw, gee moments typical of such a storytelling path, Brave’s modern structure is stalled by Disney-style conventions and values. And therein lies the movie’s distracting fault line. Merida may be a headstrong heroine, a feisty animated hybrid who calls to mind Katniss Everdeen, Bella Swan, and the neo-fairy-tale protagonist who faces off against her evil stepmother in Snow White and the Huntsman. But she is also, for safety’s sake, a nice girl in a pretty green dress who loves her family and believes in dynasty. B