A Princess Who Doesn’t Need a Prince

Disney-Pixar’s latest release, Brave, is a first for both studios. It is both a “Disney Princess” movie without a prince, and a Pixar movie with a female lead.

The film takes place in the early Middle Ages in the Scottish Highlands. The fragile peace of King Fergis’ realm rests on the shoulders of his first-born, headstrong daughter Merida, who must choose a suitor between three prominent highland clans. She has other ideas, though, and resists the pleadings of her mother Queen Eleanor to be a proper lady. She’d rather ride her horse and shoot her bow: she has grown up to be an expert archer. Nevertheless, a contest is held between three rather ridiculous suitors, during which Merida outwits her parents and forces a confrontation with her mother that ends badly for both of them. She rides into the woods in tears and . . . you’ll need to see the film to find out what happens next.

Brave is rated PG for “some scary action and rude humor” that one child in the theater with us deemed “inappropriate” but which everyone else found quite funny. Some scenes may be a bit intense for young children, but a little parental reassurance goes a long way.

Brave is a very good film, not quite at the level of Pixar’s best, but a worthy effort for their first non-sequel release since 2009’s Up. It breaks new ground for Pixar, which has never centered a film around one, let alone two strong female characters before. Yes, there have been some strong supporting actresses—Elastigirl more than holds her own in The Incredibles, Eve is a quick-tempered force to be reckoned with in Wall-E, and Dory steals the show in Finding Nemo—but Merida and Eleanor dominate Brave.

And it’s a first for Disney. The earliest princess films: Snow White, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty featured princesses who needed their handsome princes to rescue them. The second generation was better: Belle, Ariel, Jasmine, Tiana, and Rapunzel took at least some initiative to get what they wanted. But as always there was either a prince or a soon-to-be-prince who figured prominently in the story, and in the case of The Little Mermaid he was the goal.

There is no handsome prince in Brave. The suitors are intentionally portrayed as hopeless and thoroughly undesirable. It’s hard to overstate, given Disney’s history, just how huge a step forward this is. My daughter, like most little girls, loves princesses. She has seen every princess movie, including many forgettable direct-to-video sequels, and while she shares every bit of Merida’s stubborn determination, I wonder if the subtle message of these movies is slowly trickling into her mind: “You need a prince or you can’t have a happy ending.” Now she knows a princess doesn’t need a prince. She can set her own path on her own terms.

“If you could change your fate, would you?” That’s the crucial question Merida asks in Brave. I don’t believe in fate, and by the end of the film I don’t think Merida or Eleanor do either, but to the extent that fate equals what we expect from life, this movie has changed the expectations of millions of little girls and thus has changed their fate.

And this Dad says “Bravo!”

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