Sunday, July 8, 2012


I got my first inkling of worry about Brave when I went to buy postage stamps and picked the Pixar stamps. Take a look, here is the first set that was designed:
And here is the 2012 set:

 That was the first time I noticed it, but it hit me then: every one of those movies is about guys. Although some argument can be made that Wall-E is ungendered, I think we are meant to recognize "him" as masculine. And there is some sense of The Incredibles as an ensemble, but I think it's really about Mr. Incredible, with his family as strong secondary characters.

That's not to say that there aren't wonderful female characters. In fact I think Pixar does an excellent job of representing females as fully-developed characters (when they HAVE female characters in their movies). But as it has been pointed out, this IS Pixar's first movie with a female lead. And as such, the spotlight is on: how are women represented in THIS movie?

Those postage stamps were what did it for me, though. That's when I winced and thought, "Oh no. What if Pixar is just doing a movie about a princess who doesn't want to get married?"

There are some great articles already delving into this, so I'm not going to go into it, except to point out Mary Pols's article (again, from above), and in particular:

This wouldn’t feel so vaguely unsatisfying if Brave were just one of many Pixar movies that featured a strong female lead. It’s the absence of others that turns the spotlight on Brave. And having a princess protagonist isn’t inherently bad. It’s just that she is so chapter one of what girls can be — and so many other Pixar movies skipped most known chapters and moved on to whole new volumes.

And Once Upon a Blog challenges the notion that Brave is doing anything original with the princess concept.

Much with the SPOILERS ahead:

All that aside, I thought the relationship between Merida and Queen Elinor was well done. The motives of both were complex but clear to the audience even if they weren't clear to each other. Both women were sympathetic -- I don't buy the idea that Elinor was the primary antagonist, which would be a huge throwback to cliched storytelling. I liked the witch, as well, who I think was far more interesting and unstereotyped than I've seen credited anywhere -- she's not the "bad guy" per se although she causes more problems than she solves.

The main problem with Brave is the constant and significant suggestion that the characters choose/make their own fate/destiny, and then are lead around by the nose throughout the movie. The Will o the Wisps lead them to every significant plot point; the two women are left with very little agency outside of their cultural roles.

Now, how they end up, with a slightly modified lifestyle (they are "choosing" to fall in love instead of having an arranged marriage -- and I do like to think that Young Macintosh and Young MacGuffin eventually hook up) really has hardly "changed fate" at all. Merida will still probably get married, she'll just take a little more time about it and marry someone who catches her fancy, rather than being stuck picking from the three overly-buffoonish choices she had before. She'll still have babies who grow up to drive her batty, and grow old among her clan and die. She's not doing anything out of the realm of her expected life.

I'm willing to accept that. I think the main misfortune of Brave is that it claims to be something beyond the beautiful story of a mother and daughter coming to understand each other. Which I felt was very well-done (although, this being a Pixar film, I wish there had been more, successfully). I believed in the simultaneous frustration with and love for each other that Merida and Elinor felt. I thought it was wonderfully appropriate that to win the day, if you will, Merida had to sew and Elinor had to fight. The meal that Merida and Elinor shared, post-transformation, made me grin and tear up at the same time.

So why couldn't they be their own agents?

Why couldn't Merida have sought out a witch to change her mother, instead of just going with the first solution to fall into her lap?

Why couldn't Elinor, who is studied in the lore of their culture, have taken her daughter to the ruins and showed her the consequences of ill-considered magic?

Why couldn't Merida remember the way to the ruins, having found them twice before?

Why the damn will o' the wisps, anyway?

And that leads me to my next point, which I think "fixes" the story enough for me that I still love the movie -- although I'm not sure it's what the creators intended at all.

Merida and Elinor both suggest that the will o the wisps are lucky and will lead you to your destiny. (In contrast with the concept that they desire to make their own destiny.) And aren't they cute? Don't they just look helpful and appealing?


NO. They look EVIL. And I have no idea who got the idea that they should be our little handy helper buddies. After all, in traditional folklore, they're anything but helpful:

A will-o'-the-wisp /ˌwɪl ə ðə ˈwɪsp/ or ignis fatuus ( /ˌɪɡnɨs ˈfætʃuːəs/; Medieval Latin: "foolish fire") is a ghostly light seen by travellers at night, especially over bogs, swamps or marshes. It resembles a flickering lamp and is said to recede if approached, drawing travellers from the safe paths. A folk belief well attested in English folklore and in much of European folklore, the phenomenon is known by a variety of names, including jack-o'-lantern, hinkypunk, hobby lantern in English. (From Wikipedia


In fact, nowhere in British (and therefore Scottish, the culture Merida's world is drawn from) folklore does it suggest that Will o the Wisps bear any kindness toward humanity:

The will-o'-the-wisp can be found in numerous folk tales around the United Kingdom, and is often a malicious character in the stories. In Welsh folklore, it is said that the light is "fairy fire" held in the hand of a púca, or pwca, a small goblin-like fairy that mischievously leads lone travelers off the beaten path at night. As the traveler follows the púca through the marsh or bog, the fire is extinguished, leaving the man lost. The púca is said to be one of the Tylwyth Teg, or fairy family. In Wales the light predicts a funeral that will take place soon in the locality. Wirt Sikes in his book British Goblins mentions the following Welsh tale about púca.

A peasant traveling home at dusk spots a bright light traveling along ahead of him. Looking closer, he sees that the light is a lantern held by a "dusky little figure", which he follows for several miles. All of a sudden he finds himself standing on the edge of a vast chasm with a roaring torrent of water rushing below him. At that precise moment the lantern-carrier leaps across the gap, lifts the light high over its head, lets out a malicious laugh and blows out the light, leaving the poor peasant a long way from home, standing in pitch darkness at the edge of a precipice. This is a fairly common cautionary tale concerning the phenomenon; however, the ignis fatuus was not always considered dangerous. There are some tales told about the will-o'-the-wisp being guardians of treasure, much like the Irish leprechaun leading those brave enough to follow them to sure riches. Other stories tell of travelers getting lost in the woodland and coming upon a will-o'-the-wisp, and depending on how they treated the will-o'-the-wisp, the spirit would either get them lost further in the woods or guide them out.

Also related, the Pixy-light from Devon and Cornwall is most often associated with the Pixie who often has "pixie-led" travelers away from the safe and reliable route, and into the bogs with glowing lights.

"Like Poltergeist they can generate uncanny sounds. They were less serious than their German Weisse Frauen kin, frequently blowing out candles on unsuspecting courting couples or producing obscene kissing sounds, which were always misinterpreted by parents." Pixy-Light was also associated with "lambent light" which the "Old Norse" might have seen guarding their tombs.

In Cornish folklore, Pixy-Light also has associations with the Colt Pixy. "A colt pixie is a pixie that has taken the shape of a horse and enjoys playing tricks such as neighing at the other horses to lead them astray". It may well be said that the wild colt pixy would sometimes bedevil regular horses on a ride and cause them to lead their human masters into a predicament or hazard, and might have yielded the pixy - horse name variation.

In Guernsey, the light is known as the faeu boulanger (rolling fire), and is believed to be a lost soul. On being confronted with the spectre, tradition prescribes two remedies. The first is to turn one's cap or coat inside out. This has the effect of stopping the faeu boulanger in its tracks. The other solution is to stick a knife into the ground, blade up. The faeu, in an attempt to kill itself, will attack the blade.

So all right. The creators of Brave have tweaked the mythology, and made the Will o the Wisp a helper. But if that was their intention, they didn't do a very good job. Every time the Will o the Wisp appears, it leads to mischief or further problems. Consider:

They first appear when Merida is a little girl. This one instance I might be stretching a bit, but think about it. The instant she gets back to her family, they are ready to leave. One could theorize that the Wisps have, in fact, delayed the departure -- just long enough for Mor'du to find them, and attack, potentially killing the whole family. The quickness of Elinor and the bravery and fighting skill of Fergus save the family (minus one leg). We don't know if any of Fergus's men are killed or maimed as well. MISCHIEF MANAGED.

The second time they appear, they lead Merida to the witch. Now the witch isn't all bad, and in fact discourages Merida from trying to solve her problems with magic. But she certainly can't be argued to be straightforward or even particularly helpful. She is, however, willing to be bribed, and when Merida sets her up for a nice retirement, she takes the opportunity. And Merida is handed a solution that will cause far more problems than it solves. MISCHIEF MANAGED.

The third time they appear, they lead Merida and Elinor to the ancient ruins, where they discover what happened to the last prince in Elinor's story, and the last known instance of the witch using her magic to "help" someone. So it might be argued that the Wisps are trying to help Merida and Elinor figure out what's going on. But then, on the other hand, they get attacked and nearly killed by Mor'du. Only by working together do they escape. And from what the wisps have seen of Merida, she would be disinclined to work with her mother. FURTHER DEATH OR MAIMING NEARLY MANAGED.

The fourth time they appear is when they SEEM to be the most helpful, on the surface, leading Merida back to the stone circle which she for some reason can't find at that moment. Now, they appear to be fully helpful, but consider; Merida comes from a culture with no apparent female fighters, and her father is about to slay her mother. To me, this looks like the Wisps taking sadistic pleasure in leading Merida to her parents just in time to witness a tragedy. The fact that Merida does in fact prevent the tragedy is a testament to her skill and determination, not to the helpfulness of the wisps.

If for some reason Merida's mythology of the Wisps is misguided, then you have the Wisps fighting to destroy Merida's family and clan. They are subtle, sneaky enemies, and Merida's bravery and skill, as well as that of her family, help them to survive.

It's a slant on the story, I admit; I think the creators' intention was simpler and more problematic. And I'm not sure how that fits into the overall portrayal of women and the culture. It makes me feel like Merida and her mother are fighting against something more that societal expectations, and that by joining forces they overcome more than a constructed convention.

Overall, I did enjoy the movie, and it was soooo worth seeing in the theater. It's stunningly beautiful, one of Pixar's best in terms of the imagery. And I really do want it to do well. For all that I think there are problems, it's by the standard of a movie company that has blown away so many conventions and set the bar considerably higher than it ever was before. If I quibble with the fact that they've told a conventional story, they've still done it well and deserve the recognition. (Plus I want them to know that a movie with a female lead can make money -- do it again!)

What did you think?


  1. Excellent review!! You really hit on several of the things that bothered me about Brave... it's not that it was terrible or anything, it just wasn't as much as I wanted/was lead to believe it would be. The wisps were especially confusing to me too and I kind of like your mischievous reinterpretation of their motives!

    1. Thank! My husband thinks that Pixar did that on purpose (had the wisps as antagonists)... guess we'll have to wait until the DVD commentary comes out to find out more!

  2. "I think the main misfortune of Brave is that it claims to be something beyond the beautiful story of a mother and daughter coming to understand each other."

    That! I'm annoyed and confused as to why they even advertised this movie as a female empowerment movie. That's not what it was about at all.

    And yes, you were not the only one who wondered about the will-o-the-wisps, but I think you have more faith in Pixar than I do. I think they really meant them to lead Merida to her destiny, and that the dangers she had to overcome were part of that destiny.

    I was confused about the "making destiny" and "fulfilling destiny," and which one Merida was aiming for, or if she accomplished one or the other, or both.