FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *sociological. psychological, metaphysical*
Much advance hype on BRAVE emphasized that it was one of the few animated films which focused on a young girl’s familial conflict with her mother—in this case, a 13th-century Scots girl, Merida, and her mother Queen Elinor. The hype is true, so far as it goes, though it’s not necessarily the film’s most interesting aspect.
Because Merida's father—an amiable goofus named Fergus-- is the head of their clan, Merida actually enjoys a fairly cushy life in their medieval palace, even if she has to put up with three bratty younger brothers. The film depicts Merida and Elinor as having had a strong relationship in Merida’s youth. But as Merida grows older, she began finding her mother’s attentions more restrictive. Elinor continually insists that Merida must learn all the ways of the courtly female: proper dress, manners, et al—when Merida would rather act like her adventurous father, riding around and learning archery. In passing I’ll note that since it wouldn’t be politically correct these days, she’s never seen using her arrows on unassuming wildlife, as one might assume real medieval archers would have.
The main conflict comes about when Elinor—who may have wed Fergus in an arranged marriage—insists that Merida must marry into one of the neighboring clans to shore up Fergus' alliance to his sometimes contentious neighbors. Merida has no desire to be treated as a bargaining chip, and is particularly disgusted to see that all of her suitors turn out to be goofs and feebs. So that none of the neighboring chiefs will be offended by Merida’s choice, Fergus holds an archery contest to determine which suitor wins his daughter’s hand. Merida turns the contest on its head by winning the contest herself. To say the least, Mother is not pleased, though Father seems to think it all a big joke, and doesn’t seem to mind the prospect of renewing hostilities with the rival chiefs.
Like many teenagers, Merida wants nothing more complicated than ton have her mother’s constant carping to come to an end. Guided by a chimerical will-of-the-wisp, Merida locates an ancient witch, and asks her to make her mother stop the nagging. Merida procures a potion and slips it in her mother’s drink. Mother stops nagging, all right, because the potion changes her into a bear who can’t speak, though she still possess her human intelligence.
As seen in other tales of this type, the childish antagonist is in essence forced to walk in the parent’s shoes for a time: trying to find a way to re-transform her ursine parent while at the same time protecting her against harm. Said harmful influences include Fergus, who lost one of his feet during an earlier encounter with a real bear, as well as all of the neighbor-chieftains, who join forces to hunt down the invading bear no matter what. In the process Queen Elinor learns something of the passion for independence that moves her daughter as well.
BRAVE, like many Pixar films, is replete with many amusing bits, to the extent that I’d be tempted to judge it a comedy along the lines of CARS or A BUG’S LIFE. Yet fundamentally the struggle between mother and daughter inclines the plot more toward drama, or, to be precise, melodrama. The ending, in which Merida must confess her responsibility for her actions in order to save her mother, shows far more alignment with the tropes of drama than of comedy.
In addition, Merida's plight is tied in, rather confusingly, to an earlier Scottish lord who suffered a bear-curse, and under the name "Mor'du" has devolved in total bear-hood. The seriousness of the lord's fate is used both to emphasize the potential fate of Elinor and as a last-minute physical threat to Merida and all of her loved ones. The film doesn't make much of the behind-the-scenes role of the unnamed witch and the wills-of-the-wisp that apparently serve her, but it's worth remarking that though her potion doesn't work for Merida the way she expects, it does end with two major effects: both bringing mother and daughter together and ending the cursed existence of Mor'Du. Whether or not the witch meant to accomplish either or both of these effects is never decisively known.
I must admit that BRAVE, in making the mother the heavy in the matter of arranged marriages, departs from historical veracity. In this medieval period the men were lords of their castles, and they, not their wives, were more likely to barter their daughters in exchange for political advantage. One may suspect the ideology implied by a scenario in which the woman, the vehicle of decorum and manners, is made the proponent of the dreaded arranged marriage, while the man, the happy-go-lucky warrior-doofus, makes no demands on his little girl and would apparently be just as happy to see her never grow older.
Nevertheless, I don’t want to overstate the ideological implications, since I believe the scripters tinkered with history primarily—as the advance hype says—to make the conflict all about the mother and her daughter. Certainly the woods are full of stories about daughters rebelling against tyrannical fathers, so no more were really needed. Similarly, BRAVE gets points for not doing what most fantasy-films might have done: sticking one good, handsome-faced apple in the suitor-barrel among the bad ones, so that Merida would turn boy-crazy. This would have mitigated against the script’s point, that arranged marriage was not a good thing, even if it did hook one up with a hottie.
In order to avoid validating the custom, Merida has to find a way to circumvent it after finally returning her mother to the ranks of humanity. The way she chooses isn’t overly believable in terms of what would have happened in the real medieval world. But for the sake of a happy ending—which are meant to assert, “This is the way things should be”—it’s an acceptable compromise.