Pixar’s contribution to the Disney princess line, the film did win a Golden Globe, BAFTA, and Oscar for Best Animated Film. It features an all-star cast, headed up by Kelly Macdonald (Evangeline from Nanny McPhee and Helena Ravenclaw from Death Hallows Part 2), who voices Merida; Billy Connolly (Il Duce from The Boondock Saints [I’ve seen that movie precisely once, and loudly exclaimed – at ten ‘o’clock at night – “That’s Dain!”] and Dain from Battle of the Five Armies) is her father, Fergus; the ever-brilliant Emma Thompson (amongst other roles, the titular Nanny McPhee, also Professor Trelawney in the Harry Potter movies) is Queen Elinor; Julie Walters voices the witch (I did not know that; and Julie Walters may be most recognized as Mrs. Weasley), Robbie Coltrane (Hagrid, and an ally-of-sorts for James Bond) is Lord Dingwall; and Lord Macintosh is voiced by Craig Ferguson (Gobber from How to Train Your Dragon and host of his Late Show).
The film takes place in a mysterious age in Scotland [which is a huge reason why I love the movie]; there are elements of Scottish history and culture from every age thrown into the movie (i.e. Vikings and corsets are not from the same era). It’s not a true musical, as the characters don’t sing to further the plot, but it does feature three songs on its soundtrack and piqued and interest in Julie Fowlis. There is also a fun drinking song that the men sing; and a lovely lullaby that mother and daughter share; overall I simply love the soundtrack – I love Celtic music.
The story opens on Elinor playing with a young Merida on her birthday. Her father gifts her with her own bow and the little red-head eagerly practices firing arrows. One goes astray and she ventures into the woods to fetch it. She encounters will o’the wisps that lead her back into camp. Just in time, for a hulking scarred bear emerges behind her – Mor’du. Fergus and his men attack as Elinor and Merida ride away. Merida narrates as we fast forward in time (while watching beautiful vistas…visiting Scotland is top of my bucket list)
“Some say our destiny is tied to the land, as much a part of us as we are of it. Others say fate is woven together like a cloth, one’s destiny intertwines with many others. It’s the one thing we search for, or fight to change. Some never find it. But there are some who are led.”
Fergus lost a leg to Mor’du, but cheerfully vows revenge on the beast. Elinor bore triplet sons, who are the definition of mischief. And Merida is in training to become a proper princess; she has duties, responsibilities, expectations; her whole life is planned out. And she sounds none too pleased about it. But on her birthday, she can do whatever she wants, which means riding her horse Angus through an archery course. At home, her mother chastises her for setting her bow on the table; in her opinion, a princess should not have a bow. Important mail is delivered; all three clans have accepted their invitations. Invitations to what, Merida asks. Fergus hems and haws about telling her, so Elinor simply states that all three lords will present their sons as suitors to win Merida’s hand in marriage. This is news to Merida; she does not want to think about betrothal or marriage. She storms off in a huff, working out her frustration by hacking at her bedpost with a sword.
Elinor tells the legend of an ancient kingdom, ruled by a wise and just king who was much beloved. When it came time, he decided to split his kingdom into four equal sections and give a part to each of his sons. But the eldest, wanted to rule all the land by himself. “He forged his own path and the kingdom feel to war and chaos and ruin.” When Merida passes it off as a simple story, Elinor chides that “legends are lessons.” The two women separate, venting their frustrations to their companions. They insist that the other does not listen. Merida does not want to get married yet, or maybe even at all. She feels like marriage is an end; she does not want her life to be over. Elinor maintains that marriage is not the end of the world, this is the culmination of everything they have been preparing Merida for. [Personally, I think it was an unwise decision to spring the whole concept onto Merida suddenly. It should have been discussed prior to the invitations being sent.]
The gathering continues as planned and Elinor stuffs Merida into a new fancy dress and corset [as someone with a bit of experience in a corset; they take some getting used to and another thing that should have been prepared in advance. The dress is beautiful, but not Merida’s style.] The visiting clans: MacGuffin, Macintosh, and Dingwall, compete against each other in rowing before they even arrive. They compete in announcing their respective sons, making each to sound like the finest warrior. The triplets get bored and cause mischief which sets everyone to fighting. Fergus shouts “Shut It!” and all is still for a moment. Then one man lets out a yell and it all starts back up. Elinor calmly settles everyone and announces the rules. Merida perks up when she discovers that it’s all first born who have a right to compete; and she gets to pick the challenge. She announces archery.
Young MacGuffin misses, young Macintosh just misses the bull’s-eye, but young Dingwall happens to hit a bull’s-eye. Fergus leans over to jokingly congruatluate this daughter, only to find her not there. Merida steps out, hair freed from its wimple, annoucning “I’ll be shootin for my own hand!” She has to tear the dress at the seams in order to allow arm movement, then proceeds to shoot three bull’s-eye in a row, splitting Dingwall’s arrow. Elinor is furious and throws Merida into a room in the castle. They shout at each other and Merida calls her mother a beast; she will never be like her, and slashes a tapestry. In retaliation, Elinor throws Merida’s bow into the fire. Merida rushes off in tears and Elinor realizes what she did. She pulls the bow out, but it’s too late; it’s cracked.
Angus and Merida pelt across the landscape and Angus throws Merida. She’s inside a standing stone circle and Angus is not pleased. She spots wisps again and follows. They lead her to a cottage in the woods. Entering, she discovers its filled with bear carvings, a crazy old woman working in the corner. Merida’s already wary of the place, then witnesses the woman’s broom sweeping on its own and the crow talks. She calls the woman a witch and barters for a spell the change her mum in order to change her fate. (She buys the whole lot of bear carvings with a pendant) The last customer the witch had was a young prince who wanted to change his fate as well and wished for the strength of ten men. Merida receives a cake and mysteriously ends up back at the standing stones.
Elinor greets her return in the kitchen and Merida persuades her mother to try her cake as a peace offering, pestering the whole time if she’s changed her mind. Elinor gets sick off the cake and the two women retire to her chambers (Fergus is “entertaining” their guests with The Song of Mor’du). Underneath the covers, Elinor rumbles and grows, emerging as a bear. Merida screams and backs away and the bear reacts as Elinor would. It takes a few confusing moments before Elinor realizes that she’s been turned into a bear. Merida blames the witch. Elinor is not impressed. They have to sneak out of the castle and get the witch to turn Elinor back. Along the way, they bribe the triplets for help after Fergus has caught the scent of bear.
The two ladies manage to find their way to the cottage, but it’s empty. A cauldron issues a message from the witch, something she forgot to tell Merida earlier; the spell will be permanent by the second sunrise, unless they med the bond torn by pride. They can’t accomplish anything that night, so Merida erects a shelter. A memory comes to her as it rains, of another storm years ago, being comforted by her mother and sung a lullaby, Noble Maiden Fair (A Mhaighdean Bhan Uasal). In the morning, Elinor has attempted to gather breakfast, but didn’t realize that they were nightshade berries, which Merida informs her are poisonous. The water was also dirty. Merida shows Elinor how to fish and the two share a pleasant morning. Though as they’re getting ready to leave, Elinor’s eyes change, growing darker and for a moment, she wasn’t human inside. She shifts back quickly, but they understand that time is urgent. They follow the wisps that have appeared, hoping they’ll lead to answers. They enter a ruined kingdom and Merida falls into an old throne room. A carving is smashed, showing the eldest prince separated from three brothers. Merida realizes that all the tales are joined, the ancient kingdom and the prince wishing for the strength of ten men, meaning the prince became Mor’du. Who appears. Merida escapes and she and Elinor end up back at the stones. They must now sneak into the castle and mend the torn tapestry.
Elinor leads them into the castle, but the clans are fighting in the great hall; the visitors insisting Fergus decide which of their sons marries Merida, Fergus declares none of the boys fit. Taking inspiration from her mother, Merida calmly enters the fray, allowing Elinor the opportunity to sneak upstairs. When the clans gets restless again, she now takes after her father and yells for everyone to “Shut It!” She opens with the legend of the ancient kingdom and continues to say that she has learned her lesson. Their kingdom is young and while their stories are not yet legend, a bond was struck when they joined together to repel invaders. Each clan leader saved the other (sometimes by accident) and when Fergus rallied all their forces, they made him king. Now Merida will do her part to mend the rift that was created, but her mother stops her and pantomimes a new idea. They will break tradition – and let the young people choose their own love, write their own stories. All three sons agree and everyone is happily onboard. Before Elinor can be discovered, Merida sends everyone to the cellar for spirits to celebrate. Elinor pantomimes how proud she is of Merida and they head to the tapestry chamber.
Before they can stitch up the tear, Elinor reverts back to a true bear and attacks Merida. Fergus has come looking for Elinor and discovers the scene. Merida tries to stop Fergus from unknowingly attacking his wife. Elinor comes back to herself and flees. Merida takes a moment to attempt to explain the situation to her father, but Fergus doesn’t believe her. He’ll avenge his wife, and locks Merida in the room. Three little bears wander by a few minutes later; the triplets found the cake. Merida once more enlists their help and they’re soon racing back to the stones, the boys steering as Merida sews.
Elinor is surrounded at the stones; they manage to tie her down, but before Fergus can strike a killing blow, Merida shoots the sword out of his hand (Cool!). Fergus pushes Merida aside, letting Lord Macintosh hold her. She flips him, draws a nearby sword and takes down her father (also cool!) “I’ll not let you kill my mother.” The three bears jump on their father and he realizes that they’re his sons, making Merida’s story true. Mor’du shows up and the clans rally again. Deprived of a weapon, Fergus declares “I’ll take you with my bare hands!” Merida tries to assist, but her arrows are no good against the large bear. Elinor has the most luck against Mor’du, coming to her daughter’s aid. The two bears have a go at each other, though Elinor ultimately outwits Mor’du and has one of the standing stones fall on him. The ghost of the prince rises, nods to Merida, and turns into a wisp.
They haven’t much time now, the second sunrise is fast approaching. Merida drapes the mended tapestry over her mother and the light touches the mend. However, Elinor’s eyes darken. Merida heartbreakingly apologizes to her mother; “you’ve always been there for me.” “I love you.” She cries and everyone around her gets teary-eyed. Then a hand rests on her hair. Elinor is back! She kisses her daughter’s face and Fergus cheers and kisses his wife and they’re soon joined by three naked boys.
The movie ends with Elinor working on a new tapestry with Merida. The clans are leaving (the boys trying to sail away as well). Merida echoes her opening speech while riding with her mother,
“There are those who say fate is something beyond our command, that destiny is not our own. But I know better. Our fate lives within us. You only have to be brave enough to see it.”
Overall, I like this movie. I love the message of choosing your own destiny; that Fate is not set in stone. It’s actually akin to story lines that I have been reading for years [I will admit, I read Scottish romances; that’s where my interest in Scottish history developed]. I think it was great that the movie did not end with Merida choosing one of the suitors, a break with Disney tradition. The dynamics between Merida and both of her parents is nicely complex: she seems to take more after her father and he indulged in teaching her to use a variety of weapons, and the mother/daughter relationship is shown to have gone through stages. They were close when Merida was young (as shown in the flashback), then they became strained when Elinor became more demanding on Merida to conform to tradition. At the end, they’re on their way to a close relationship again. Even the relationship between Fergus and Elinor is adorable; Fergus doesn’t mind when Elinor takes over duties he’d rather not do and they seem to genuinely love each other.
As already stated, I love the soundtrack and the animation. And I don’t mind the mixture of Scottish elements. However – I have a few small points of contention. I got so excited before the movie to see this action princess who shoots arrows…and then the story revolves around bears. Yes, the way that both Elinor and Merida have to save each other is wonderful, but I just found Merida whiny at times, and as already mentioned, Elinor and Fergus could have brought up events earlier. My biggest peeve about the movie is the witch. They’re in a land with a history of wonderfully complex witches [Arthur’s sister, Morgause, was married to King Lot of Orkney; the Orkney Isles are under the jurisdiction of Scotland]…and we get a joke. I realize a lot of this was done to make it acceptable for kids; I wish they’d make version of the film for adults with a proper witch that you can’t decide if she’s good or bad and a truly kick-butt princess. Thus, Brave still ranks high on my list, but does not hold the top position.
As always, let me know if you have any questions or comments.
Up Next: Frozen
Post Script: I remembered that there is a huge crossover that came about between Rise of the Guardians, Brave, Tangled, and How To Train Your Dragon, called either “The Big Four,” or “Rise of the Brave Tangled Dragons.” It’s not sure how the crossover was started; crossovers are not uncommon in the fandom and fanfiction worlds; we can cross anything over. My guess is that they were all popular at the same time, all depicted as teenagers, and all willing to fight to change their futures. So, fans figure out a way to team them up to fight a big bad. There’s a whole slew of fanart [some of it is saved on my Pintrest boards]. Some fans also pair Hiccup with Merida [I saw a video somewhere years ago, of a fan asking Merida at Disney if she had ever heard of Hiccup; I don’t think the actress had]. At one point, I was a fan of that; historically, Vikings had invaded Scotland, then settled, so not that outside the realm of possibility. But, Astrid and Hiccup make such an adorable couple! For me, a cool idea, but I’m also fine just enjoying each movie on its own and exploring those worlds.