...shining light on the media, one review at a time
With films like The Incredibles and Up, Pixar established itself as capable of producing some of the best-made, truly family films of recent years. These movies offer an unusual blend of clever humor and touching stories that have uplifting messages with little negative content. Naturally, families anticipate each of Pixar’s new projects with excitement, hoping for another winner.
In some respects, Brave bears the positive marks of a Pixar film, with stunning animation, relatable characters, and an interesting story. Those descriptors need to be qualified, however, as Brave manages only two well-rounded characters out of many, while the tale itself only narrowly avoids being too fantastic to swallow.
Worse than these artistic weaknesses, Brave falters in the most important area that often distinguishes Pixar from the competition, here shakily delivering only scant wholesome and uplifting content. Instead, crude body humor, a disturbing depiction of men, husbands, and fathers, and a message of self-reliance that negates the need for God make the film a treacherous journey for parents to take with their kids.
Despite the movie’s promising title, the filmmakers weren’t brave enough to stand out from the crowd this time, instead blending in with themes and content more harmful than poignant and weak rather than brave.
Tale as old as time, true as it could be. No, this isn’t the classic tale of the beautiful maiden and the prince-turned-beast, but the story is just as familiar, dealing with the often difficult relationship between daughter and mother. Who is the “beauty” and who is the “beast” in Brave? The answer depends on your point of view.
If you ask Merida, the fiery young princess who wants only to be free to be herself and find her own destiny, she would argue she is the innocent victim of a dictatorial mother. Queen Elinor, on the other hand, loves her daughter and believes she’s only doing what is best when she tries to teach her daughter to be a proper lady and fulfill her duties to the kingdom.
But Merida isn’t like her mother. She’s rough and wild, wanting only to gallop through the glen on her trusty steed, shooting arrows better than any man in the kingdom. The queen is disgusted by her daughter’s behavior and desires for Merida to follow her example of dignity, grace, and decorum.
[MILD SPOILER WARNING] The clash between mother and daughter comes to a head when Merida comes of age to be wed. According to the kingdom’s tradition, the first-born of the lords of the land must compete to win the princess’s hand in marriage. Horrified by this prospect, Merida tries to resist her determined mother, but the attempt results only in another argument.
Forced into participating with the ceremonial competition, Merida initially watches the clumsy suitors’ inept attempts to compete in an archery tournament. [SPOILER WARNING] Unable to stand the spectacle any longer, Merida enters the competition herself and outshoots all the young lords, embarrassing their pride-driven fathers. With a potential blood-feud about to erupt, Merida and Elinor have their worst conflict yet. Driven by the frustration of not being heard by the other person, both say and do things they shouldn’t and Merida flees the castle.
[SPOILER WARNING] Thanks to the magical will-o’-the-wisps, who Merida believes will lead her to her destiny, the young rebel finds a friendly witch in the forest. Desperate to avoid an arranged marriage, Merida hastily hires the witch to conjure a spell that will change her mother, which, Merida says, will then “change her fate.”
Merida gets far more than she bargained for when Elinor changes in a horrifying way Merida never expected or would have wished. With serious disasters pending because of her actions, Merida must find a way to mend the bond with her mother and break the spell before it’s too late.
The primary theme of Brave is no secret. But, strangely, it has almost nothing to do with bravery. In the narrative at the beginning of the film, Merida talks of “fate” or “destiny,” saying that it’s the one thing all people look for or “fight to change.” The quest to control one’s fate is woven throughout the plot, as that desire grows for Merida until it nearly consumes her and drives her to make foolish choices with harmful consequences.
There are numerous problems with Brave’s take on fate and destiny. Merida’s life, for example, becomes entirely about herself when she is so focused on her own fate. She doesn’t care how she affects others, but only that her future is the way she wants it. In part, Merida learns to think of other people by the end of the film. She realizes that she has hurt her loved ones and tries to make amends, even being willing to sacrifice her own happiness and what she dreaded most in order to undo the damage she has caused.
This lesson that Merida seems to have learned, however, has only a weak impact because she doesn’t have to go through with any real sacrifice of personal desires and instead concludes that everyone should have the freedom to choose their own fates and that, as she says, “our fate lives within us,” completely under each individual’s control.
A pretty sentiment for a secular society, but hardly conducive to living selflessly. This message of self-empowerment leaves no room for God in the world of Brave, stripping His role as creator and director of lives and placing it in the hands of individuals, each in charge of his or her own fate. It’s no surprise to find this idea in a secular film, but when such an undermining of biblical truth is aimed at children, there’s reason to be concerned and use caution when letting kids watch the movie.
Perhaps not able to imagine a completely ruler-less world themselves, the filmmakers do make room for magic and an all-powerful witch. While this witch is not overly scary or evil (she actually requires Merida to mend her relationship with her mother in order to break the spell), parents should be aware that she is a witch of the classic, traditional type—complete with cauldron, magical potions, conjuring, etc. It is magic, then, that is the “unknown” element of this universe, but even this kind of power is only put in control by the characters’ actions and choices. Again, the emphasis is put on the individual’s power over destiny.
The positive flip-side of this theme is the message that choices do matter and have consequences. Merida’s mistakes and her eventual repentance for them are a strong demonstration of the need for responsibility and of the harm that can result from selfishness, carelessness, and anger. Forgiveness, sacrifice, and love ultimately win out in a moving climax that almost makes up for the many flaws in the rest of the movie.
The trouble is, there’s a plethora of inappropriate and downright alarming content to overcome by the film’s conclusion. Brave avoids using foul language, but finds plenty of other ways to offend through body humor and other jokes that are particularly damaging in a children’s movie.
These moments include Merida’s father, King Fergus, giving Elinor a flirtatious pinch and one of the lords mooning the other royals (the audience isn’t shown his nudity, seeing him only from the front). Viewers aren’t spared that sight in another scene, however, when the naked derrieres of the king and lords are shown as they’re walking outside the castle (having needed to use their pants for an escape). Animated or not, this content is nudity, which, it seems, has now become “acceptable” in kids’ movies.
The film’s strange preoccupation with nakedness is topped off with a reference to Elinor being “naked as a wee born babe” in one scene (though she’s completely covered in a large tapestry) and the child princes shown naked from the back.
Another problematic scene features one of Merida’s trouble-making brothers about to jump into the ample cleavage of a servant woman wearing a low-cut dress. The scene cuts away before we actually see him dive in, but the implication is clear. A similarly, subtly sexual moment comes when the witch’s talking bird describes an adult prince as being “easy on the eyes” with “tight pants.”
While Merida’s family seems to avoid more of the obviously inappropriate behavior and dialogue, the king and his relationship with his wife provide one of the most troubling issues in the film. Though he was chosen as the ruler of the land, Fergus apparently earned the position through brawn, not brains. He is portrayed as an unintelligent, gluttonous, fool who is kind and loving with family, but has no marks of a true leader. He is incredibly brave when his family is in danger, but only as in the heedless and instinctive reaction of a wild animal protecting its young.
That courage disappears in a flash whenever Elinor shows a hint of disapproval. In this kingdom, it’s clear who the real ruler is, and she wears a dress. Little wonder, then, that Merida’s little brothers scurry about the kingdom, causing mayhem wherever they go, as the only parent who practices discipline and leadership is only interested in shaping her female child.
As obvious as some of these content issues may seem in a review, they’re packaged with comedy and in such a gorgeous example of the heights of modern animation that it may be all too easy to overlook Brave’s problems in light of its strengths.
The animated cinematography is artistically and beautifully accomplished, with breathtaking scenery and sequences created by impressively gifted animators. There are also a few action sequences that are fast-paced with the live-action feel viewers have come to expect. (These scenes contain some elements of danger and violence that might be too frightening for young children.)
Easy on the eyes, but hard on the spirit, the Brave filmmakers have the guts to cross the line with damaging content, but lack the courage to use their creativity for greater cleverness, inspiration, and impact. The bar Pixar had raised has been dropped. Let’s hope they can at least get over it next time.
Check out these movies instead:
Beauty and the Beast (Disney, 1991)
Up (Pixar, 2009)
Sweetpea Beauty (VeggieTales, 2010)
For more ideas, visit our What to Watch page!