An honest take on life and parenthood

Brave without the Heart

on August 31, 2014
Photo credit: discoverscotlandtours

Photo credit: discoverscotlandtours

The Pooh and I were primed and ready to meet a new Disney princess, especially one that broke the typical girly mold. Although we were a couple of years late, we were excited to finally see Merida, the Scottish princess from Brave.

In a lucky coincidence, a local church advertised a free summer showing of Brave, so I reserved the date on the calendar and invited one of the Pooh’s friends to come with us.

That evening, we walked a few blocks to the church, helped ourselves to popcorn, and sat down to enjoy the movie.

Here are the basics of the plot:

Princess Merida is the first born to a powerful Scottish king and queen, who also have mischievous triplet toddler sons. The family lives in an imposing stone castle in the Scottish highlands in ancient times. King Fergus, an endearing and lovable brute, is known as the Bear King. He relishes recounting his fight and victory over a massive bear to anyone who is willing to listen.

Merida is not your typical Disney princess. A strong-willed tomboy, she loves archery, her horse, and the unleashed freedom of the outdoors. Her flaming, unruly mass of curls mark her as an unconventional free spirit. Neither she nor her hair can be confined. She is her father’s daughter, sharing his red hair, his fierceness, and his big personality.

Her mother, Queen Elinor, is a prim and refined woman. She keeps her dark tresses bound and her dress tastefully elegant. The Queen chides her daughter to be a proper princess, reminding her that princesses don’t bring their weapons to dinner. She attempts to teach her rebellious daughter how to eat daintily, recite ancient heroic tales of Scotland from memory, and walk like a lady. Mother and daughter clash constantly.

Soon, Merida arrives at betrothal age, and must be married off to a prince from another kingdom. She rebels against the idea and argues fiercely with her mother. During the confrontation, Merida slashes a long tear in a family portrait tapestry, over which her mother has labored for years. In retaliation, the Queen throws her daughter’s precious crossbow into the fire.

Merida storms out of the room and flees into the forest.

Desperate to escape her betrothal to an unknown prince, Merida finds a witch, who gives her a spell to change her fate. That spell turns the Queen into a black bear, exactly the kind that the King had killed years before.

Merida is horrified at the outcome, and attempts to find a way to break the spell. She finds out that she has only 48 hours to reverse the enchantment. Merida and the Queen reach a new understanding of each other, and Merida restores her mother to human form just under the wire. At the conclusion of the film, Merida is given the authority to choose her own suitor for love, breaking with tradition.

Brave is filled with amusing references to Scottish culture, including kilts, haggis, bagpipes, runes, and ancient folklore. The rich landscapes of the highlands, moors, and lochs are breathtaking. As a fan of folk music and singer-songwriters, the film’s music also helped me to appreciate the Scottish influence on a musical tradition I love. Unlike most Disney movies, the music was relegated to a back seat and did not contribute to the movie’s popular identity, but it was enjoyable, if not very memorable.

The Scots are a warm, fun-loving people, an ideal culture for a Disney movie. As a friend once put it, “The Scots are like Latins, except they live near the North Pole.” Pretty accurate, if you ask me.

Royal Stewart tartan

Royal Stewart tartan

Given all of that, the Pooh and I should have loved Brave.

But we didn’t.

Ham-handed direction and the male perspective overshadowed the tender core story about the complicated relationship between a mother and teenage daughter, and how that relationship fractures, changes, and transforms into an adult one. The story lost its emotional pull and resonance early on and never regained it.

To me, it seemed that Disney and the director were so concerned about getting boys to see the movie that they amped up the fighting, the slapstick, and the boy jokes. They were so confident about the pull of the Disney princess industrial empire that they took the girls for granted, not giving enough heft or depth to the main story.

As a result, the mayhem and noise gutted the heart of Brave. By the time we reached the emotional climax at the end, I was so battered by the incessant action that I felt no joy or cathartic relief.

(As a side note, the original director was a woman. I can’t help but wonder how the movie may have been different – and possibly better – had she not been replaced. Alas, we will never know.)

The story dragged in several places. The director addressed this issue by introducing a fight or visual slapstick of objects falling or sloppy eating. These techniques were entertaining the first time, but not by the fifth or sixth. Why not cut the repetitive jokes and tighten up the story instead?

There were too many fight scenes. I understood that ancient Scotland was a barbaric society, but there was excessive gratuitous violence, especially for a children’s film. Fewer, shorter fight scenes would have conveyed the culture just as well. It made me wonder if American children are so inured to violence that even Disney thinks it needs to cater to this expectation of entertainment, including in its princess movies.

I spent much of the movie shielding the Pooh and comforting her during the numerous fight scenes as she cried and clung to me, screaming, “Mommy, it’s SCARY!” The Pooh is just four, but in her defense, I’m an adult, and I didn’t enjoy these scenes either.

Continuing along this critique, the bare butt jokes were cute and silly, but once again, it felt like male humor. Predictably, one butt joke was not enough, so there were two.

The final straw was seeing the key to Merida’s prison room go down the maid’s cleavage, and one of Merida’s triplet brothers diving down her blouse to get it.

I had to rub my eyes. Was I actually seeing a male adolescent booby joke in a Disney movie for little kids? I’m not a prude, but really, Disney? COME ON. I still feel vaguely pissed off about it.

Since I’m chopping away here, I’ll get to my final beefs, which revolve around the two principle female characters, Queen Elinor and Princess Merida.

I hate to say this, but neither character interested me.

The Queen was strangely out of place and hard to like. She didn’t belong in this society of rough and tumble barbarians. She was rigid and prissy, and had unrealistic expectations of her daughter. Did she really expect Merida to live a genteel, refined existence in a crude world? She was in denial about who her daughter really was, so it was difficult to find sympathy for her.

The movie portrayed the Queen as the diplomat and the brains behind the throne, respected by the Bear King as well as the other Kings and soldiers around them, but in such a male-dominated, tribal world, I didn’t buy it. She lacked the warmth and charm to make her influence believable. Consequently, I was not moved by her transformation into a bear or back into human form.

Most importantly, Merida herself disappointed. She was likeable and vivacious, but unremarkable. She hit a few notes of personality, but evolved little as a character to make us feel for her or identify with her.

Merida possessed many qualities that could have made her a hero and arbiter of change. She was a gifted athlete and intelligent young woman, which would make her a natural candidate to round up some boys and men and lead them into a heroic adventure. But she couldn’t even round up her mischievous baby brothers, let alone anyone else.

I couldn’t help but compare Merida to tomboy friends and classmates who did have that combination of natural athleticism, intelligence, and powerful femininity.



They weren’t frilly or delicate. They were strong girls, smart and commanding and competitive. They were the captains of their teams, natural leaders. They weren’t afraid to go toe to toe with any guy who was foolish enough to challenge them, and the boys usually lost. As adult women, they married men who respected them as equals.

When I first heard of Merida and the movie’s premise, I anticipated a clear minded, fierce warrior, like Joan of Arc or one of the famous Celtic warrior princesses of ancient folklore. Instead, we got a rebellious, outspoken girl who storms around melodramatically, eventually makes peace with her mom, and asks for the right to marry for love.


Here was one option: why did Merida have to marry anyone? She could have become Queen some day and not had to consider or marry any of the three bozo suitors at all. Let’s face it. Not one of them were remotely her equal. Can you imagine trying to fall in love with any of them? Shoot me now. No wonder Queen Elizabeth I, another royal redhead, decided never to marry.

Queen Elizabeth I

Queen Elizabeth I

Or how about an interesting relationship with a rival boy who was as athletic and competitive as she was, who clashed with her but then embarked on an adventure to become her best friend and ultimately her prince?
Now we’re talking.

Instead, we ended up with a princess who teased us with her fire and bravado, but ended up being a fairly ordinary girl.

If Brave was the best Disney could produce, no wonder the studio had lost its footing as a leader in animated film.

Frozen put Disney back on the map after a long dry spell, and deservedly so. Frozen showed us that it is possible to create a blockbuster princess movie without panicking about how many people with Y chromosomes were going to buy movie tickets.

Both girls and boys loved Frozen, because excellence has no gender.

Frozen didn’t pander to girls over boys or vice versa. And much to everyone’s surprise, Queen Elsa – not Princess Anna – emerged as the hit Disney princess of the movie. Elsa was powerful and authoritative, but also showed softer emotions of love and remorse and frustration. We identified with her isolation and struggle to be herself. Her personality had many layers, some of them generous and brave, and some dark and dangerous.

To quote my husband, “Careful with Elsa. She’ll mess you up.”

We never had any such respect for Merida.

Both Brave and Frozen built their stories around the heroic quests to heal and keep non-romantic love. Brave did not successfully convey the complicated emotions that Merida and her mother would have experienced, mostly because it was easier to wallpaper the movie with Three Stooges tartan. Frozen, on the other hand, fearlessly incorporated the many shades of human nature into its heroic tale, and ended up a blockbuster.

The Pooh and I will not watch Brave again, but I hope that Disney gives another tomboy princess a future turn. My Pooh may be a girly girl, but there is a warrior in every woman’s heart, and I know it’s in hers too. The more fearless female leaders she sees, the better.

Here’s to you, Queen Elsa.


3 responses to “Brave without the Heart

  1. jgroeber says:

    So true. As I read this I so appreciated the synopsis you shared because even though I sat through the whole thing, I had no recollection of the plot. I men, it wasn’t offensive and at least they didn’t slut up her dress as they did to Elsa, but still, snore. It’s funny, but Tangled is a princess I can really get behind. Dippy blonde figuring out who she is when she heads to the city of lights… Hmmm.


  2. We actually have the Tangled DVD, but I cannot convince the Pooh to watch it with me. I think I’m just gonna steal it one day and watch it after she goes to bed. Thanks for the comment, blondie…


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