Much has been made of the fact that Merida, the heroine of the new Pixar film Brave, is a girl, the first female protagonist in Pixar's history of 17 years and 13 animated films. Well, they've come a long way baby — sorta. Merida is a feisty gal, and a great hero for kids, girls and boys alike, to root for. But she is also a princess. In American animated films it appears that the only females worth doing stories about are princesses. The great Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki's latest film, The Secret World of Arrietty also featured a feisty girl who can take charge and go on adventures. She was not only not a princess, but she was barely five inches tall.
This is not to say that Brave doesn't have its charms. Merida (Kelly Macdonald) may be a princess, but she isn't into doing all the usual princessy-stuff like learning to speak sweetly and politely, sew and play the harp, etc., etc. She loves to ride her horse Angus and especially to shoot her bow and arrows. But she is no Katniss Everdeen — she doesn't bring game home to her father the king's table, but rather seems to like to shoot her bow for accuracy, hoping for a Highlands archery competition. She gets her chance when her mother (Emma Thompson), fond of saying things like "A lady does not place her weapon on the table," tries to marry her off to the son of one of three local clans, and in the competition for her hand Merida competes herself, and of course wins. All of this is good stuff, and a nice twist on the traditional boy must impress girl, prince must win princess stuff. Brave is a girl power movie, with most of the males (save Angus) extremely unimpressive. Billy Connolly manages to make an impact as the King, but through humor, not prowess.
The real star of Brave is Merida's unruly, yet gorgeous mane of hair, which rivals Rapunzel's in its impressiveness. The film is simply wonderful to look at, especially the background and treatments of surfaces, like the hair on a horse or the weave of a tartan's plaid. The facial features of the characters are a little more doll-like, and they still have that "Pixar style" that will be familiar to anyone who has seen Toy Story, The Incredibles, Ratatouille or Up. It will be a real stride forward when the Pixar animation team feel they can inject as much individuality to their human characters as they lavish on hair, fabric and grass.
As a fan of fairy tales I love the many classic stories that have featured princesses, and see nothing wrong if my daughter (or any of her male friends) also familiarize themselves with them as they grow up. But fairy tales were mostly jotted down in a pre-democracy world. The goal of most storybook princesses is to find a prince. Many modern girls and women still equate such an aim with the only truly possible happily ever after. The marketing power and influence of Disney and its princess line is undeniable, but as we construct new stories, do we really need to continue to create new princesses? Merida's refreshing tomboyishness aside, Brave's female characters are mythic stereotypes — maiden (Merida), mother (the Queen) and crone (a witch, voiced by Julie Walters). The only other noticeable female in the movie is a (quite) buxom and rotund servant in the castle, whose main reason to be around is so that her cleavage can be used to comic effect.
The tagline of the movie, spoken by Merida, is "If you had a chance to change your fate, would you?" But does Brave take us beyond those three archetypal women, and does Merida really change her fate? Even after some magical (and quite amusing) transformation involving bears, not really. Merida and her mother, both stubborn types, agree to give each other a little more slack, and Merida can push off her wedding, at least for now. Brave ends up not being about Merida's independence at all, but more a story about a teen and her mom learning to appreciate and understand each other better. That's not a bad thing, but it's hardly the female empowerment story that many might have been expecting and hoping for.