In 2012, my family went to see “Brave,” Pixar’s newest installment, in theaters while on a trip to Boston. I was 12 years old at the time, and my older sister was in high school; she and my mom had been fighting a lot, going through the classic teenage-girl-versus-mother-tension. In the theater, everyone in my family had something different to enjoy. While I focused on the jokes, my mom and sister seemed to focus more on the heart of the story: the relationship between Merida (Kelly Macdonald, “No Country for Old Men”) and her mother Elinor (Emma Thompson, “Cruella”).
The film instantly sets up the differences between Merida and her mother. Merida, with her wild red hair, chafes at the way her life is planned out. Her freest moments are those when she is alone with her horse, her bow and the surrounding natural landscape; her most limited moments are those when her mother is preparing her to be the queen of her land by teaching the expectations of a princess, which Merida despises. On the other hand, Elinor is hesitant to let her daughter take paths that go beyond the tradition that she is used to. Elinor sees her lessons and the conditions that she imposes on Merida as ways to guarantee a secure future; Merida sees these as restrictions and therefore believes that her mother is the barrier between her and the future she wants for herself.
“Brave,” Pixar’s first film with a female protagonist, caught the attention of audiences with its incredibly detailed animation, strong Scottish brogue and the deliberate exclusion of a romantic subplot. This last aspect is not something to take lightly — Merida’s declaration of “I’ll be shootin’ for mah own hahnd” is a groundbreaking, not to mention iconic, departure from fairy tale tropes. In “Brave,” no one gets to win Merida’s hand without her own consent.
This becomes the boiling point of tensions between Merida, who values her freedom to the point of selfishness, and Elinor, who values tradition to the point that she ignores her daughter’s happiness. Words fly; a tapestry, meant to depict the bond of family, gets torn. Merida consults a witch (Julie Walters, “Mamma Mia!”) and gets a potion meant to “change” her mother — specifically her entrenched beliefs — and inadvertently turns her into a bear. It’s an extreme beginning to a reconciliation, but it effectively forces them into a position where they have to listen to and learn from each other.
One of the things I love most about “Brave” is that the female characters and relationships are not diminished. Elinor and Merida’s quiet conflict, while taking on an admittedly oversized obstacle (i.e., transforming into a bear), is sophisticated and complex compared to the cartoonishly overdone masculinity of the clansmen. Additionally, both Elinor and Merida carry incredible power. When they walk through the room, the men stop fighting and create a path; when they speak, people listen. The clashes between them are not characterized as “catfights” or stupid conflicts based in jealousy. When they fight, it’s because they are both independent and strong; when they make up, it’s because there is still room in the world (and the film) for two incredibly powerful women to be on the same side.
The transformation of their relationship is admittedly predictable, filled with easy metaphors about ruptures and healing, but the intensity of the emotion is what gives it so much power. A scene where Elinor and Merida talk to their respective sounding boards — Elinor’s husband Fergus (Billy Connolly, “The Boondock Saints”) and Merida’s horse Angus — moves back and forth between them as they express their free-flowing feelings, demonstrating how the biggest problem between the two of them, like most relationships, is a lack of simple communication. As Merida’s gotten older, they’ve stopped rationally explaining their hopes for fear of clashing, and they’ve lost their ability to convey their affection for each other. These rifts are contrasted with moments from Merida’s childhood — one shown at the beginning of the film and one shown as things become more dire — that show scenes of affection between mother and daughter. Merida and Elinor hug each other and look at each other with love as if to show that their foundation is unshakable, even when it feels as though it’s being shaken.
Throughout the film, Merida and Elinor’s situation is (unsubtly) compared to that of Mor’du, a giant bear who turns out to be under the same spell that Merida gave to Elinor. Instead of being the result of a fraught mother-daughter relationship caused by generational misunderstandings and struggles to communicate their love for each other, the story of Mor’du is more boring: A self-important prince tries to gain the strength of ten men to prove that he’s stronger and better than his brothers. In my opinion, power-hungry brothers don’t have the same emotional sting as watching Merida and Elinor finally bond after years of not being on the same page. But, as Elinor says, “legends are lessons that ring with truth”: The parallels between Merida’s mistakes and the story of Mor’du are meant to show how the same mistakes can be made, but how the decisions you make after that can change the outcome.
Walking out of that Massachusetts theater in 2012, my mother told me that she was crying and apologizing to my sister about their recent fight. Truthfully, I don’t think I noticed it; as a 12-year-old, I honestly wasn’t paying much attention at the time. As I’ve gotten older, though, I understand more. More recently, the mother-daughter relationship in “Brave” has stuck out to me as the strongest and most thought-provoking part of the film, the kind of thing that makes me think about my own relationship with my mother. There’s an inherent specificity to Merida and Elinor’s relationship — most girls, after all, wouldn’t be able to turn their mother into a bear, no matter how much they might want to — but the fact that it feels so universal speaks to its power. You can fight and disagree with your mom all you like, but at the end of the day, the only thing that matters is that she loves you, and you love her too — claws and all.
Senior Arts Editor Kari Anderson can be reached at email@example.com.