Spoiler Level: Low
"Legends are lessons: they ring with truth." The Scottish princess Merida (Kelly Macdonald) says these words towards the end of Pixar's enchanting new film Brave, and of course she's right. Stories are important—especially the stories we encounter as children—and we take away many more lessons from their worlds than we ever learn in any other classroom. As a piece of filmmaking, one could argue whether the gorgeous and entertaining Brave deserves to be counted among the very best of Pixar's reliably wonderful work. (I think it does, but I also think ranking a catalog of movies this good would be an exercise in nitpickery.) As a new legend offered to the world, however, I'd argue that Brave is Pixar's most subversive work, and perhaps its most important.
Consider: Merida has officially joined the ranks of Disney Princesses, a storytelling heritage that dates back to 1937's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and a multi-billion dollar merchandising franchise that dominates the market for pre-tween girls. There she will take her place alongside Snow White (Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs), Cinderella (Cinderella), Aurora (Sleeping Beauty), Ariel (The Little Mermaid), Belle (Beauty and the Beast), Jasmine (Aladdin), Pocahontas (Pocahontas), Mulan (Mulan), Tiana (The Princess and the Frog), and Rapunzel (Tangled). This makes her only the second CGI heroine—after Rapunzel—to join such august company, and the first Pixar character.
But when the Disney Princesses gather for their annual company retreat—yes, I like to think of them all standing around making awkward small talk at a conference center somewhere, wearing name-tags and enduring endlessly self-congratulatory Powerpoint presentations—Merida will stand out for more substantial reasons than her gloriously three-dimensional hair. "So, how did you meet your prince?" someone will inevitably ask her, and Merida may well toss her glorious locks in exasperation. "I haven't got a prince," she'll say, in her delightful Scottish brogue. "Who needs a prince, anyway?"
One of the common tropes of the Disney Princess is the "I Want" song, in which the heroine sings of longing for a different life, and—usually—for romance. (Think of Snow White's plea for a lover in "I'm Wishing," or Ariel singing about how she wants to be "Part of Your World" to her prince in The Little Mermaid.) Merida, on the other hand, doesn't sing; she does get an "I Want" anthem in Julie Fowlis's "Touch the Sky," but it's less a song of longing and more a declaration of will:
I will hear their every story,
Take hold of my own dream,
Be as strong as the seas are stormy,
And proud as an eagle's scream.
I will ride, I will fly,
Chase the wind and touch the sky.
What Merida wants is to avoid the fate of all those other Disney princesses, whose stories all ended with their happy marriages. The fiery, rebellious daughter of King Fergus (Billy Connolly) and Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson), Merida doesn't want a different life: she just wants to be left alone to enjoy the life she has, of horseback riding and archery and exploring the (beautifully rendered) craggy cliffs and lush glens of Scotland. Her raucous father indulges her non-traditional tendencies, but her mother is determined to turn her adventurous daughter into a "lady"—to transform her, in other words, into a proper princess.
It is to the movie's credit that there are no real villains in Brave (excepting a particularly ferocious and terrifying bear): it is a story of a mother and a daughter—heroes, both—and each will need to understand a little of the other's perspective before the story is over. Elinor is in conflict with Merida for much of the film, but her intentions are good, and her desire to change her daughter is not simply a matter or priggishness or propriety. There is a sense that Elinor is the real ruler of the land, achieving more with diplomacy and tact than her husband achieves with brute strength. (When a fight breaks out among the various gathered chieftains, Elinor is able to stop it by simply walking between them with dignity and poise, and this type of courage is not presented as, necessarily, a lesser kind than that required to fight bears.) It is diplomacy that leads Elinor to insist Merida go through with a long-standing tradition to keep the peace between the clans, and offer her hand in marriage to the son of one of the other tribes. A competition is arranged, in which the suitors compete for the honor, but Merida will not have her fate determined by others, or allow herself to be objectified as a prize: she takes up her bow and enters the contest herself. "I'll be shooting for my own hand," she stubbornly proclaims.
I'm not going to discuss much more of the plot of Brave, except to say that Merida seeks a magic spell to help her change her fate, with predictably unforeseen consequences. The ensuing adventure is a little uneven: its tone shifts wildly back and forth between very broad comedy and scary action scenes. (The witch [Julie Walters] who provides Merida with her spell—though funny—is the most jarring element, seeming to have stepped out a more winking, tongue-in-cheek Disney film like The Emperor's New Groove.) But all of these elements work individually, if not always together, and Brave brings both the laughs and the thrills with equal success. (Highlights of the former include Merida's three impish little brothers; highlights of the latter include some genuinely frightening battles with a demonic looking bear named Mor'du.)
And it is almost unnecessary at this point to comment on the visuals: with any Pixar movie, you can rest assured that the animation and backgrounds will be the best you have ever seen, and yet will still somehow be outdone by each subsequent picture. Brave is gorgeous, although perhaps not in as immediately showy a way as other films from the studio: in the rich details of the forest, the sheen of water running down a stone wall, or the rebelliously unkempt curls of Merida herself, Brave rivals Ratatoille in the incredible precision and texture of its wholly realized world. Character design is deceptively simple, yet the nuance in the human faces—always the greatest challenge—is truly impressive. (Elinor, for example, looks little like Emma Thompson, but there are tiny mannerisms and facial expressions that enable Thompson's excellent performance to shine through.) The 3D is used well, and used the way I like it—to lend depth to a frame, rather than to poke things at the audience—but, until I have a chance to see the film in 2D, I'm not yet sure it's worth the sacrifice of color and brightness.
Brave does sometimes feel like a safer movie than most of Pixar's efforts: more old-fashioned, more recognizable, less wildly original in its concepts. But I think that is intentional, because Brave offers what is, really, a radical reinterpretation of the traditional Disney Princess, a quiet subverting of the genre's expectations and principles. No Disney Princess has ever been unmarried at the end of her movie, and yet Brave not only eschews the expected Prince, it leaves the entire subject of romance completely off the table. It's not that Merida is prevented from marrying who she wants, it's that she doesn't want to marry anybody, at least right now: she simply has no interest in boys. (She has no interest in girls, either, of course, but I suspect Merida could also serve—and perhaps was intended to serve—as a perfectly strong role model for little girls who might never like boys.) Willful, strong, and independent, Merida refuses to be defined by anyone but herself: she may find love, one day, but we know she will refuse to sacrifice her independence and power—as so many Princesses (like Ariel and Rapunzel) have done before her—in order to get it.
Stories are important, and legends are lessons. There was a little girl—no older than five—sitting in front of me with her parents at my midnight screening of Brave. She and her parents had obviously been to the Disney Store just that afternoon, for the little girl entered the theater holding a 12-inch doll—or let us call it an action figure—of Merida, a bright, redheaded totem that she cradled proudly. (The child was arguably too young to be at such a late screening—but then, I suspect 5-year old Merida could have talked her parents into bending the rules, just the once, for a taste of adventure.) The little girl sat, bolt-upright and enraptured, throughout the entire movie, gasping and cheering and applauding wildly; at key points throughout the film she would salute Merida's proudest moments by jabbing the doll triumphantly at the screen in agreement. She loved the film, and she clearly loved its hero, and I doubt it ever occurred to her to ask why there was no prince, or why there was no wedding at the end. Who needs princes, when there's a kick-ass princess to admire? Who needs weddings, when there are still adventures to be had?
After 75 years of Disney heroines who staked their happiness on finding a man, Merida may offer such little girls a different definition of what "happily ever after" can look like.