Written by Hayley Garden; edited by Morgan Moore and Kathryn Cooperman.
Cover image per stltoday.com.
Pixar Animation Studios, which opened its doors in 1995 with the first ever feature length 3D Animated film, revolutionized the medium and completely changed the course of animation’s future. Their movies are nothing short of incredible, with compelling characters driving tightly written plots that guarantee to move at least one viewer to tears. However, Pixar’s filmography has always suffered from a major fatal flaw: all of their movies are about male characters. There are female side characters, but until 2012, there had never been a female protagonist of a Pixar movie.
In 2011, Pixar announced the upcoming release of their thirteenth feature, “Brave” at D23 Expo, the largest fan convention dedicated to all things Disney. Brave was pitched as Pixar’s first female-led movie, and fans were excited to see what felt like a very ambitious movie at the time. Brave was released in June 2012 to mixed results, especially for a Pixar film. On Rotten Tomatoes, the film currently is rated 78% among critics and 75% among audiences. Nearly all of Pixar’s films are rated between 95-100% on Rotten Tomatoes. Brave is also on the lower end of the spectrum when it comes to money grossed – it made only $500 million dollars at the box office. Compared to most of the other films in Pixar’s back catalogue, it is on the low side. Despite setbacks in development and after release, Brave is good. Its true potential was squandered by executive management at Pixar, but the end result has a lot of heart in its own way.
Brave tells the story of a teenage girl named Merida. Known as a free spirited and fiery young woman, Merida dislikes being the princess of her Scottish kingdom. She is a skilled archer and horseback rider, and prefers to spend her days exploring the Scottish countryside, climbing mountains and shooting targets. This causes Merida to fight with her mother, Queen Elinor, who wants Merida to focus on her diplomatic duties as princess and heir to her throne. One of these duties, to Merida’s dismay, is to marry a prince from a neighboring kingdom. After the princes compete for her hand in marriage, Merida decides to twist the rules, announces that she will be competing for her own hand, and wins. This enrages Queen Elinor, and Merida runs away to a witch’s cabin in the woods in anger. The witch gives Merida a cake that will hopefully change Queen Elinor’s mind about her marriage. Instead, it turns the queen into a bear. In the race to find a cure before the spell becomes permanent, Merida bonds with her mother in her bear form, and realizes that there is a way for both her and her mother’s ideals to coexist in her life. The end of the film sees everyone trying to kill Merida’s mother in her bear form, but Merida is successfully able to mend the relationship with her mother, and all is well once more.
Brave was marketed as monumental for being Pixar’s first female-led film in the 17 years since the release of Toy Story in 1995. It was also supposed to be the first Pixar film directed by a woman in that same 17 year timespan. Brave was meant to be a film that came from director Brenda Chapman’s heart, in her quest to tell a story inspired by her own relationship with her daughter. However, during the last ten months of production, Chapman spent much of her time butting heads with the higher ups at Pixar over the creative vision of her film. This ultimately led to her getting kicked off the project, and male director Mark Andrews being brought in to “co-direct”, and finish the film up in time for its June 2012 release date. Chapman was quoted as feeling “devastated” to have been removed from production with a little over a year left to go. She brought up a great point at the time in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, which is that to have her story taken away and given to someone else, and a man at that, was truly distressing on many levels. Despite that, Chapman is ultimately proud of the film that Brave ended up being, citing her creative vision as the glue that holds it together.
Some of the changes made to Brave after Chapman’s departure, made in order to make the movie more marketable and palatable for boys, become more obvious once the nature of its tumultuous process becomes well known. The most egregious example is the inclusion of Merida’s troublemaking triplet little brothers in the narrative. Had Brenda Chapman been able to see her true vision through to the end, there is little doubt that those characters would not be in the film at all. Co-director Mark Andrews has three sons in addition to a daughter, and his influence is particularly marked there. Anyone watching Brave can see that those kids were added in to sell plush toys (since they turn into bears as well), and serve as pointless comic relief characters that young male moviegoers can identify with and laugh at. Fortunately, this does not affect Brave’s quality too much, as they are not in the movie for too long, but they are given valuable screen time that should have gone to Merida or her mother.
Brave holds up well on rewatch, and the animation is still gorgeous nine years later. While there is a structural disconnect between the bear plot and the marriage plot, the emotional throughline of Merida’s relationship with her mother is strong enough to keep the viewer invested through the messier parts of the film. The scene at the end of the film where Merida and her mother resolve their differences and vow to understand each other more is an extremely effective one. Merida’s anguish over being unable to lift the curse is an emotional beat that lands, and it is impossible not to sympathize as she pours her heart out. The viewer is on tenterhooks watching Merida take the final strides towards mending her relationship with her mother, wondering if her words will be enough. When the curse is broken and Queen Elinor becomes human again, the viewer cannot help but feel relieved, elated, and a little exhausted. That scene alone is an emotionally taxing journey, something that Pixar is notoriously good at executing throughout their films. Brenda Chapman’s vision shines through Brave, despite the heartbreaking chain of events that occurred to her in development. Her creative vision for Brave is indeed the glue that holds the film together.