Over the past decades, Pixar has earned its reputation as the premier animation studio in the United States. It took digital animation from being a quaint curiosity to being the most popular and accepted form of animation in the modern American cinema. Rather than accepting animation as the realm of children and allowing it to fall into a simplistic, shoddy abyss, Pixar has fought to show that Walt Disney was right that animation was “the most versatile and explicit means of communication yet devised for quick mass appreciation.” When other cartoons were focused on simplistic entertainment, Pixar took on society’s tendency to hate the exceptional with The Incredibles, the question of being human with WALL-E, and the question of true love, generative living, and adventure with Up.
I am a huge Pixar fan. Not all of Pixar’s films have resonated for me, but I find the studio’s handling of story and their dedication to deep literary and human themes admirable in an industry where pandering for profit far too often outweighs quality. Because of that respect for Pixar and my unabashed love of princesses, fairy tales, and fantasy, I was giddy when I heard about Brave. Pixar doing a princess fairy tale with a fantasized historical backdrop of Twelfth Century Scotland? Oh yes, please! I’m a humanities teacher, so history is close to my heart, and I’ve taught courses on myth, fairy and folk tales. I’m familiar with the work of Propp, Bettelheim, Zipes, and Campbell, and I knew that with Pixar’s dedication to theme and detail they would be too. I was psyched.
The initial marketing for the film fanned the flames of my enthusiasm. Merida’s character design, with its moon-face and medusa hair didn’t thrill me, but the will-o-the wisp lights and the sweeping vistas promised wonder galore. And, of course, the tag line of changing your fate resonated – it fit in with the themes of classic myth and Campbell’s hero journey.
Then I saw the archery trailer, and my hopes fell. Where many other viewers thrilled to Merida as a strong, liberated heroine standing up against patriarchal values, I saw an homage to the increasingly accepted modern viewpoint that strong women have to be divas, brats or “bitches.” It wasn’t Merida’s defiance; it wasn’t her desire to break free of her “princess” role; it was the fact that she chose to act publicly with open insolence against her mother in front of the whole kingdom. It was a choice I saw not as being about liberation but about humiliation, and it made me lose a little respect for Merida.