The Disney-Pixar film, Brave (2012), directed by Mark Andrews, Brenda Chapman, and Steve Purcell, is a computer-animated film set in Medieval Scotland featuring Merida, a skilled archer and princess, who is determined to seek freedom from the cultural duties and responsibilities enforced upon her. As the story unfolds, Merida’s mother, Queen Elinor, announces a kingdom-wide competition amongst the first-born sons of the clan leaders for Merida’s betrothal. In an act of defiance against the age-old custom, Merida rejects the cultural practice in order to assert her freedom to choose her future partner. Desperate to change her fate, she consults with a witch who concocts a spell intended to change her mother’s mind about preserving the cultural tradition. Unbeknownst to Merida, the spell turns Elinor into a bear, forcing the mother-daughter duo to have to learn to work together to break the spell before it becomes permanent. The kingdom falls into disarray while Merida and Elinor learn to listen to one another and gain insight into the other’s perspective. After mending their bond, Elinor is returned to human form, the clans reunite, and the story concludes with the announcement of the termination of the marriage tradition.
Touted as Pixar’s first computer-animated fairy-tale , Brave was inspired by the writer’s (Brenda Chapman) own relationship with her daughter. As such, the focus and presentation of the film is clearly directed towards young children and families, with particular attention to the mother-daughter relationship. Utilizing the image of the bear as a central figure in this pedagogical tale, we are reminded of Cynthia Chris’s contention that representations of animals articulate and disseminate entertaining yet educational messages, while also acting as a lens through which we can examine dominant ideologies . Similarly, Louise Krasniewicz argues that metamorphosis from human to animal is an ancient (and contemporary) visual form that functions as a way to provide new perspectives to change our understanding of the world . As a tale that explicitly invokes the increased need for communication between mothers and daughters with the inclusion of implicit feminist undertones, the symbolic usage of the bear is more ambiguous. However, the sense of ambiguity or ambivalence within film with respect to the presentation of animals is, for Paul Wells, a defining characteristic of animation . As such, animated characters—especially animals—by their very nature carry diverse sets of representational positions that allow the animated art form to challenge cultural boundaries and traditions. This transpires with the challenging of the marriage tradition found in Brave. The interrogation of cultural traditions and boundaries—human vs. animal, culture vs. nature, etc.—via the image of the bear structures the following analysis.
Underlying the plot of Merida’s rebellion against the culturally normative marriage traditions in the film is the Legend of Mor’du . This legend, found briefly in the film and in its entirety outside the film as an additional animated short, acts as a fable to teach the dangers of hubris and failure to maintain cordial family relationships. The tale is one of an ailing king who leaves responsibility of the kingdom to be shared amongst his four sons. Shattering the bonds of brotherhood, the eldest selfishly pines for exclusive rule of the kingdom. Lead by the will-o’-the-wisp, he travels to the house of a witch. There he asks for a spell that would change his fate and is given the strength of ten men by being transformed into a monstrous bear. Now as Mor’du, the eldest decides to forego the spell-breaker which would mend the bond torn by his hubris; instead, he desires power and accepts the shape of the bear, allowing him to defeat his brother’s but resulting in his banishment, for his army saw only a beast.
The central conflict of the Legend of Mor’du is reflected in Merida’s story. In response to Merida’s opposition to the competition of the suitors for her betrothal, Queen Elinor announces that following one’s own path, like Mor’du, leads to the collapse of a kingdom and social ruin. Thus, breaking tradition is understood by Elinor to put the kingdom in peril. Such a message is constantly showcased at the beginning of the film when Elinor puts Merida through extensive training regimens to instruct her on the proper behaviour of a princess and future queen, in which Merida reluctantly participates. Much like Mor’du before her, Merida is lead by the will-o’-the-wisp to the witch who attempts to pass herself off as a woodcarver, who interestingly enough only carves images of bears. Witches are often understood as traditional figures of abjection — something cast off from society for being evil/monstrous and an inherent disturbance to conventional cultural concepts and identity—and in the film they are intimately associated with the bear. This association between the witch and the image of the bear reinforces each as a symbol of evil that are dissociated from and threaten conventional society.
Once Elinor is transformed into a bear, we explicitly see the conflict/incongruence between being a bear and living in human society. When Elinor becomes cognizant of her transformation she still exhibits typical human-like behaviour: attempting to adorn herself with her crown and using the curtain as clothing in an attempt to fit in to her traditional societal role. Elinor even expresses embarrassment for her being “naked” when Merida pulls off her make-shift clothing. Merida explains to her mother, with whom she up until now has been unable to effectively communicate, that bears don’t wear clothes. Similar struggles to “fit in” to the human world/culture are also displayed when one of the clan leaders doubts that a bear could be in the castle as they can’t open doors with their paws, and again when Elinor, attempting to walk upright on two legs like a human, has trouble navigating the castle stairs. As the story ensues, Elinor’s behaviour becomes more “uncivilized” as she takes on typical bear conduct: eating food with her paws after struggling with utensils and impulsively eating raw fish rather than waiting for the fish to be cooked, as she had preferred even moments prior in bear form. Although Elinor is unable to speak, mother and daughter begin to listen and learn from one another, to see the world from the other’s perspective. Elinor learns from Merida how to survive in the wilderness as an “uncivilized” animal, for it is Merida’s survival techniques, her outsider and “uncivilized” disposition, which comes to vitally aid in Elinor’s existence as a bear. Much like Elinor, Merida finds herself embracing her mother’s perspective by adopting a more “civilized” and culturally normative approach when she takes the role of her mother, the queen, and diplomatically mends the rift that has befallen the kingdom following the unresolved issue of the betrothal. The mother-daughter duo come to see eye-to-eye after gaining insight into the other’s perspective, especially Elinor, who in unwillingly adopting the form of the bear is able to step outside societal custom and reassess the marriage tradition as an oppressive cultural practice. Following Elinor’s endorsement, Merida states that young people should have a say in choosing their fate, nullifying the marriage tradition.
Merida and Queen Elinor
As identified by Wells, typical narrative paradigms treat the natural world and animals as wild and in contradistinction to human culture ; Brave is no exception. The imagery of the bear in Brave suggests that it represents that which is outside/peripheral to humanity/human culture. This resonates with Akira Mizuta Lippit, who identifies the animal in Western culture as outside, yet critical to the constitution of the human . The figure of the bear symbolizes an incompatibility with culturally normative and socially civilized human society and relationships. As a bear, Mor’du is forsaken by his own army, while Elinor is demonized by the kingdom, including her own husband. This binary opposition between civilized culture and uncivilized nature is clearly reinforced in the film; however, the film lucidly demonstrates the benefit of temporarily occupying a liminal state on the threshold of both categories.
Wells, following Marcus Bullock, suggests that the animal functions as a symbol of freedom, a way to renounce the authority of the dominant social structure . In conflict with the dominant social discourse and in need of freedom, Merida feels like a cultural outsider, perhaps even like an animal. Fittingly, the only way Merida can effectively communicate and present her perspective to her mother is when she unwittingly takes the form of a bear. As Krasniewicz argues, transformation into the animal dissolves cultural boundaries, and allows us to view cultural discourse from a new perspective. Elinor’s transformation forces her to shed her cultural norms to become something other, to see the world from the eyes of a cultural outsider like Merida who has been presented throughout as having a disposition incompatible with current cultural norms and expectations. It is only from the alien perspective of the bear that Elinor can connect with her daughter and understand the oppressive nature of the cultural tradition in order to challenge it. Temporarily occupying a state in-between culture and nature reinforces the opposition between the two, but assists in keeping the boundary fluid, allowing for reflexivity that makes human culture/society more just and equitable for its members.
While exploring the animated film Brave I was reminded of a few earlier Disney and Pixar films with similar themes. The first, The Lion King, deals with similar subject matter to the Legend of Mor’du, where a pretentious brother’s hubris, jealousy and selfishness (Scar) leads him to kill his brother (Mufasa) to usurp the kingship. The second, Finding Nemo, reflects upon the overprotective parenting style in a father-son relationship. Similar to Merida’s plight, Nemo’s defiance is a stance on procuring a greater sense of personal freedom. The film concludes with Marlin (Nemo’s father), coming to the realization that he was too hard on his son and needed to give Nemo a greater sense of trust and freedom. Such connections clearly exemplify Chris’s notion of animal pedagogy, where representations of animals articulate new insights into human behaviour and provide a lens through which to reassess dominant ideologies and cultural practices.
 Wikia Entertainment, ‘Brave’, The Disney Wiki, <https://disney.wikia.com/wiki/Brave> [accessed 24 February 2014]
 Cynthia Chris, Watching Wildlife (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006).
 Louise Krasniewicz, ‘Magical Transformations: Morphing and Metamorphosis in Two Cultures’, in Meta-Morphing: Visual Transformation and the Culture of Quick-Change, ed. by Vivian Sobchack (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000).
 Paul Wells,The Animated Bestiary: Animals, Cartoons, and Culture (Rutgers University Press, 2008).
 Wikia Entertainment, ‘The Legend of Mor’du’, The Disney Wiki, <https://disney.wikia.com/wiki/The_Legend_of_Mor’du> [accessed 24 February 2014]
 Barbara Creed, ‘Horror and the Monstrous-Feminine: An Imaginary Abjection’, Screen 27, no. 1 (1986), 44-70.
 Wells, p. 19.
 Akira M. Lippit, Electric Animal: Toward a Rhetoric of Wildlife (U of Minnesota Press, 2000).
 Wells, p. 76-77.
Chris, Cynthia, Watching Wildlife, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006)
Creed, Barbara, ‘Horror and the Monstrous-Feminine: An Imaginary Abjection’, Screen 27, no. 1 (1986), 44-70
Krasniewicz, Louise, ‘Magical Transformations: Morphing and Metamorphosis in Two Cultures’, in Meta-Morphing: Visual Transformation and the Culture of Quick-Change, ed. by Vivian Sobchack (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000)
Lippit, Akira Mizuta, Electric Animal: Toward a Rhetoric of Wildlife (U of Minnesota Press, 2000)
Wells, Paul,The Animated Bestiary: Animals, Cartoons, and Culture (Rutgers University Press, 2008).
Wikia Entertainment, ‘Brave’, The Disney Wiki, <https://disney.wikia.com/wiki/Brave> [accessed 24 February 2014]
——, ‘The Legend of Mor’du’, The Disney Wiki, <https://disney.wikia.com/wiki/The_Legend_of_Mor’du> [accessed 24 February 2014]