The latest Disney/Pixar project, Brave, begins in DunBroch, a kingdom in 10th-century Scotland ruled by the brawny King Fergus and his wife, Elinor, who is the picture of decorum and grace. By contrast, Merida, their daughter, is as feisty and spontaneous as her unruly red locks.
Ever since her father gave her a bow and arrow when she was a little girl, Merida has prided herself on her skill as an archer and would much rather gallivant through the Highlands on her trusty horse, Angus, than learn the duties expected of a princess. Indeed, with her penchant for stuffing her face, shooting straight and fast, following will o’ the wisps and climbing enchanted waterfalls, the last thing on Merida’s mind is her future as queen.
Nonetheless, and as per tradition, her mother invites notable Lords of the kingdom to present their sons to Merida. The lucky man who excels at feats of strength will win Merida’s coveted hand . . . but not if Merida has anything to do with it. Taking her fate in her own hands, breaking years of tradition, and begging a spell from an elusive witch woman, Merida sets in motion a course of events that could change her family forever. But then, learning that impetuous actions have drastic consequences, Merida must sacrifice her independence to do what is right to restore her family.
While Merida contains a strength and originality pleasing to viewers, she is also realistically flawed. When she fails to get her way, and feels that she has exhausted any chance of making headway with her mother, she looks for an instant answer to her problems—with grave results.
Acting out of love, Queen Elinor often dictates that Merida conform to the standards to which she herself was held as a young woman. Wanting a secure future for her daughter, Queen Elinor schools Merida against her natural propensity to run and gallop and romp, steering her toward lessons in diction, dancing, and fine manners. Friction ensues as Merida and the queen butt heads again and again until Merida seeks her own answers.
What teenager hasn’t found themselves at odds with his or her parents? Perhaps not in instances of arranged marriage, but certainly when it comes to clashing opinions on behavior and clothing. The characters and the conflict are thus both relatable. The heart of the story rests in Merida’s relationship with her mother and in symbolically, and literally, mending a bond ripped by Merida’s thoughtless actions.
Brave champions the traditional nuclear family through Fergus and Elinor, Merida, and Merida’s incorrigible brothers, Harris, Hamish, and Hubert. Merida reflects both her mother’s inner strength and her father’s courage and boisterous spirit. There are numerous examples of ramshackle love and devotion apparent even when the Castle goes up in arms. This element of the film provides children with a glimpse into families where tradition and parental influence work and succeed through moments of chaos. The balance both Fergus and Elinor hold when it comes to influence over their children and over the kingdom at large, is equally impressive. When an impromptu brawl breaks out between the rambunctious clans visiting DunBroch Castle, Queen Elinor need only walk gracefully through the center of the room to halt the insanity. Merida has the opportunity to follow in her mother’s footsteps, literally, at a later moment in the film.
Communication, compassion, and compromise also exist as three strong themes in the film. One telling scene switches from Elinor in a moment of role-play (her comical husband acting the part of their teenage daughter) to Merida, using her horse as a stand-in for her mother, arguing that she can never get the queen to listen. But as travails and challenges disrupt the kingdom, Merida and her mother learn the merits of familial communication.
Compassion is apparent when Merida is unexpectedly forced to take care of her mother in a way her mother has always cared for her. Drawing on her inner goodness, and the lessons she has learned from her loving parents, Merida is able to atone for past mistakes by risking her happiness for another.
And one of the most moving scenes in the film involves compromise. While Merida rebels against the long-standing tradition of a groom being chosen through feats of accomplishment, her mother proves to her that tradition can be changed and that what Merida has long dreaded can be happily altered through a negotiation that will benefit all parties.
Parents of young children should be advised that there is magic-related violence and a few scary scenes with a bear. Due to this violence and the maturity of the themes involved (including a few moments of bawdy humor amongst the bantering clans), I would recommend this film for children ages eight and up. Christians should be advised of the presence of the aforementioned witch who, though comical and instrumental in mending a bond, restoring a relationship, and teaching the error of Merida’s ways, uses a cauldron and spells to change Merida’s fate. The idea of fate is further emphasized through Merida’s following of the will o’ the wisps to her destiny, and her belief that that destiny lies in her own hands.
Brave is, at its heart, a moving love story: a story about a mother and daughter who come to common understanding through calamity, resolve to restore a severed bond, and reap the reward of a stronger relationship.
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