I knew Brave was in trouble from the first few words spoken in voice over as the film began. Merida (Kelly Macdonald) uses the words "fate" and "destiny" interchangeably. This muddle is at the heart of the film's problem.
What's the difference between fate and destiny? Philosophers through the ages have distinguished the two based on choice. Fate is something that happens TO you. Destiny is something that happens BECAUSE of you.
Fate is at the root of such words as "fatal" and "fatalistic." It implies LACK of choice. Philosopher Rollo May says fate is what we are born into, something that cannot be changed and that we have no control over, such as race.
May says destiny is what we create based on what we were given. Destiny is all about CHOICE. It's what we choose to do with what we have.
Merida is born a princess. She can't change that. Her mother, Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson), is grooming Merida for a role as future queen. After a long series of wars King Fergus (Billy Connolly) has united the four clans. Merida's duty is to help keep the clans unified though a judicious marriage.
Merida is a wild rebellious child with special talent as a rider and archer. The demonstrations of her skills are absolutely breathtaking. She is unique and extraordinary and initially looks very much like a Power of Idealism character.
These kinds of characters are driven by their passion. They abhor what they consider to be a mundane, boring, or mediocre life. They want to seize some grand destiny that is uniquely theirs.
Well-drawn female protagonists in this vein are: Paikea (Keisha Castle-Hughes) in Whale Rider and Jess Kaur Bhamra (Parminder Nagra) in Bend it Like Beckham. Unlike Paikea or Jess, Merida doesn't fight for what she believes is HER destiny. Merida, instead, decides to change her mother! Perhaps this is because Merida has no clue about what she is really called to do.
Now the story gets even muddier. With the help of an old witch's spell Merida does indeed change her mother — into a bear.
Instead of figuring out who she is and what she uniquely is called to do, Merida must again deal with who her mother is. In the struggle over the middle part of Brave, Queen Elinor becomes the protagonist.
The definition of a protagonist, in my book, is the person who makes the biggest emotional sacrifice in the story. It is the person who undergoes the most profound transformation. This is clearly Elinor on every front.
Queen Elinor is a Power of Conscience character. She is a strict and demanding taskmaster, a perfectionist, and is driven by a strong sense of tradition and duty. Over the course of the story she recognizes her daughter's uniqueness and fully appreciates Merida for who she is.
The first important glimpse of Elinor's change of heart is the brawl in the great hall after Merida has disappeared. When Merida strides back into the hall it is Elinor who puts words in Merida's mouth. Elinor speaks through her surrogate about going against tradition and marrying for love. It is Elinor who makes an eloquent plea for choice and following one's heart. Merida is just her passive interpreter. At the end of the film Elinor is willing to sacrifice her own life in a battle with the ancient cursed bear, who one would assume, was the monster who took off her husband's leg. Or not? Who knows?
Even more confusingly this monster turns out to be the legendary brother, it would seem, who destroyed the ancient kingdom so long ago because of his pride and selfishness. How how did he turn into a bear? Was it mother love or something else that breaks his curse?
When a legend and curse is set up so carefully it should have a pay-off having to do with Merida or her destiny– if the film is really about Merida.
And what does Merida do that is so brave? She scurries around looking for the witch's house after her mother turns into a bear. She stitches up (with big clumsy childish stitches) the tapestry she slashed separating her from her mother. She does a lot of running away and running around. She is ineffective in battling the monstrous cursed bear. And she collapses in tears remembering her mother's loving kindness as the second sunrise threatens to make her mother's bear curse permanent. In other words, she acts like a child– or worse a girl.
At the end of the film, Elinor has changed but not Merida. Merida is the same galloping wild child as she was in the beginning. It is a sinking back into carefree childhood rather than striding toward an adulthood based both on duty and and an individualistic sense of self. If you are a young woman, what is the lesson here?
Brave offers no alternative vision of how Merida might help unify the clan in some way that is uniquely hers. It provides a very unsatisfying resolution. How has Merida changed or grown? What happens when King Fergus and Queen Elinor are too old to rule? What is Merida's role going forward? What exactly is her destiny?
For the full review go to my website ETBscreenwriting.
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