Last year there was considerable excitement about Disney's newest Pixar film, Brave (2012, PG). Word was the Scottish tourist industry was hoping this film would ignite interest in visiting Scotland; the promotional company VisitScotland reportedly spent £7 million on a promotional package that piggy-backed the release of the film. Though the Pixar epic is evidently set in medieval Scotland (as the kilts and accents make clear), it is ironic that Scotland backed this movie so heavily when the word "Scotland" was never once said in the film, leaving the audience to wonder whether this was really Scotland or some fantasy world based on Scotland. This is only one of the many ironies about Brave.
Brave is the story of a young princess named Merida who, when compelled to marry against her will, finds herself in conflict with her parents and turns to a witch for solace. Of course, the tryst with the witch does not go as expected, Merida's mother winds up accidentally turned into a bear, and mother and daughter embark on a journey full of adventure and self-discovery as they seek to break the spell and restore their broken relationship.
The characters are vivid and likeable (the scenes of Merida's boorish father Fergus and his half-drunken shenanigans with the other clans are quite amusing), and the movie moves quickly. Probably the best things about the film were the cinematography and soundtrack. The soundtrack features your typical blend of Celtic instruments, coupled with some wonderful original contemporary songs written in the Celtic tradition ("Into the Open Air" and "Touch the Sky", performed by Julie Fowlis, were pretty enjoyable). The scenery and cinematography were excellent, capturing both the beauty and the savagery of Scotland in vivid detail.
Those are the pros. The cons, however, run deep. Haven't we heard this story before? A princess compelled to marry against her will? Aladdin. Beauty and the Beast. Yawn. Heir to the throne in conflict over personal rights and royal responsibilities? Little Mermaid. Lion King. Angst-ridden teenager in conflict with parent who "doesn't understand them"? Shoot, that's every recent animated film. How to Train Your Dragon. Finding Nemo, plus all the ones I have already mentioned. In short, Brave has all the classic Disney-Pixar plot rehashes that have already been done a million times.
Not that it is bad to rehash an old plot. Dr. Stan Williams, a Catholic screenwriter, has argued convincingly in his book The Moral Premise, and blog of the same name, that a decent film has to have a convincing moral premise at its core, something the movie is "really" about, a general rule of life or truth of human nature that the characters either prove positively by falling away from and then returning to, or, in tragedy, rejecting the truth and destroying themselves. This is what any movie is really about, and as long as the moral premise is sound, there is no reason the same plot or lesson can't be revisited various times under different guises; this tends to happen anyway - French writer Georges Polti analyzed all the literature of western civilization and stated that there really is only 36 dramatic situations you can put your characters into, so every film is inevitably going to be a rehash of some plot we have heard before.
But to bring this back to Brave, it is not that the film revisits an old lesson; it is that the film chooses to revisit specifically the worst lessons of the modern world. Reckless individualism at the expense of public responsibility. Feminism (unlike, say, Aladdin, where the princess only protests being forced to marry someone she does not love, in Brave, Merida protests against getting married at all, and by the end of the film still has no husband, even though she is evidently the only heir to the kingdom and takes no thought whatsoever to what will happen to the kingdom and dynasty if she does not marry and produce an heir); a plot based on conflict with parents, as if it is entirely normative for kids and parents to be so alienated that they can barely communicate. A "repressed" female lead who just wants to "make her own way" in the world without input from parents, elders or tradition. This is a summary of Brave's moral premise, and it doesn't sit well with the Catholic vision of the world. Back in the kitchen, Merida!
Seriously though, the witch sequence is interesting. It is very similar to Little Mermaid; red-headed, naive female protagonist visits witch to remedy her familial problems leads to unintended consequences. There is a little twist that makes it different from the situation with Ariel and Ursula; instead of threatening, the witch in this film is more, well, silly...kind of like Miracle Max and his wife from Princess Bride. And, instead of Merida being transformed herself, the transformation happens unexpectedly to Merida's mother - although, with the vague request to the witch that her mother be "changed", the audience could see this coming from a mile away. Merida needs to take a lesson from Homer Simpson; if you are going to wish for something from a witch or cursed object, make sure you are very, very specific.
The transformation of the mother into a bear does provide us with a valuable lesson, though. There are no quick and easy problems to the difficulties of life. Problems with relationships must be worked out and worked through; sometimes difficult situations have to be suffered through and endured in order to be rectified. Ironically, the experience of wandering the wilderness with her mother as a bear does in fact restore the relationship and bring about the change that Merida wished for; in a way, the witch's spell works perfectly, though not as expected.
Oh yeah, there's also this creepy demon bear who is also some transformed ancient prince who serves as a foil to show what would happen if the spell wasn't broken in time and the relationships not restored. He's pretty scary, so maybe not a film for little ones.
One thing to point out, from a Catholic viewpoint, is the total and absolute omission of anything remotely Christian from this film that is supposed to be about medieval Scotland. As we have often seen with other movies about medieval Ireland and Scotland, any reference to the rich Catholic heritage of either of those kingdoms is systematically omitted, despite the fact that the pre-Christian pagan mythologies are drawn upon heavily. Faeries, will-o-the-wisps, witches, demon bears,pagan standing stones are all featured in Brave, but not one church, not one Catholic priest, not one monk or abbey, not one reference to the great Catholic Tradition that began in Scotland with St. Kentigern in the 6th century and lasted almost a thousand years - even though the movie ostensibly takes place during the height of this great Catholic period of Scottish history and though the designers tried to be accurate in every other point except this one.
This omission is truly a shame because the Catholic customs and traditions of the Celtic peoples are so rich and varied. Scottish and Irish saints are extremely colorful characters that could have easily taken the place of the witch and gotten the plot to the same points but without the use of "magic", which is presented as very real and powerful while the Blessed Trinity is non-existent. Why the Scottish tourism people would be so excited about a film that intentionally and universally ignores a thousand years of their heritage is beyond me.
In conclusion, there are some evident good things about this movie. The scenery and music are awesome, there are some truly funny parts, and the reunion of Merida and her mother is very touching, coming after the princess learns a valuable lesson about working through difficult situations. But all the other lessons that are imparted by this film somewhat cancel out the positives; the lack of any reference to Catholicism, even in the scenery, is disturbing, and worst of all, some fundamental problems are never resolved - after everything is said and done, Merida still does not obey her parents and take a husband, nor does she give any hint of scaling back her reckless individualism; furthermore, her mother seems in fact to convert to Merida's way of thinking, and in the end, the whole kingdom is happy despite the fact that they still have no marriage, no heir, and presumptive civil war after the death of King Fergus. But at least Merida's mom has learned not to be such a stiff.
It might be a good film to watch with middle school aged kids and then have a brief discussion about some of these problematic elements. The movie is still entertaining, and could be used as a lesson for instruction for those parents who want to have a discussion about ways Merida does and does not fit in with what we know of medieval Scottish culture.
I give Brave 2 out of 3 tiaras (that's about a 66%). It was amusing and pretty to watch, but it didn't quite all add up, and it could have been so much better if Catholic elements had been included, even if just by way of scenery or cultural references.
Review by Boniface