By Nicole Ackman
Merida from Pixar’s “Brave” (2012) is perhaps one of Disney’s most overlooked princess. Which is strange considering she’s one of the best role models and her existence is one of the biggest milestone achievements of the whole group. “Brave” is set in the Scottish Highlands and follows a young princess who would rather practice her archery than listen to her mother’s lessons. She defies their customs and refuses a betrothal, leading her to make a deal with a witch to change her mother. But when her mother is actually changed into a bear, she sets about reversing the spell and fixing their strained relationship. Merida is voiced by Kelly Macdonald, while Queen Elinor is voiced by Emma Thompson.
“Brave” represents a series of firsts for the Pixar studio. It is the first and only Disney princess film made by Pixar. It also was the first Pixar film to feature a female lead, though three more have followed in the eight years since its release. The film was directed by Brenda Chapman, marking the first time a woman directed a feature-length Pixar film.
However, she was replaced part of the way through the project by Mark Andrews because of creative differences with studio head John Lasseter. She still was credited as a director on the film and received the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature alongside Andrews. Chapman also collaborated on the screenplay with Andrews, Purcell, and Irene Mecchi and the film was produced by Katherine Sarafian. Thus, women were involved in production, writing, and direction — a definite first for Pixar and for Disney princess films.
“Perhaps part of why Merida is such a strong character is because “Brave” had female involvement at multiple levels. “Brave” remains the only Disney Princess franchise film to have had a female director.”
Breakthrough achievements aside, Merida is a badass and a great character to present to both young girls and young boys. She is independent and ill-behaved, in the vein of earlier princesses Mulan and Pocahontas. She is a skilled archer and horseback rider and loves nature. Her red hair is curly and unruly and she ruins her fancy dresses doing archery. She chafes against the expectations for her and her training in how to be a princess.
Perhaps most importantly, Merida is a three-dimensional character with both strengths and flaws. Over the course of the film, she must learn to put aside her stubbornness and accept her responsibilities to her family and her people while still finding a way to remain true to herself.
“Brave” is also commendable for its healthy portrayal of a family. While Merida may not always get along with her mother, the family atmosphere is clearly a loving one. Merida has two attentive parents, King Fergus (voiced by Billy Connolly) and Queen Elinor, as opposed to many earlier princess movies in which one or both parents are dead. Merida is an indulgent older sister to her younger brothers even when she is frustrated that they can get away with misbehaving and she can’t.
“Brave” was the first Disney princess to not have a romance plotline and Merida was the first princess not to have a Disney prince counterpart. Merida isn’t interested in marriage, at least not yet, and would rather be a leader in her own right.”
The film also features a very healthy dynamic between Merida’s parents; they are loving and respectful equals in their marriage. In fact, Elinor can subdue the leaders of the other Scottish clans when her husband can’t and has the respect of the other leaders. Over the course of the film, both mother and daughter come to understand each other better and learn how to find a solution that will make them both happy.
“Brave” was the first Disney princess to not have a romance plotline and Merida was the first princess not to have a Disney prince counterpart. Merida isn’t interested in marriage, at least not yet, and would rather be a leader in her own right. She interrupts a competition meant to determine her chosen suitor, iconically stating, “I’ll be shooting for my own hand.” It’s a great precedent to set for younger girls watching the story: that their lives don’t have to revolve around romance, but could be defined by their familial relations or their careers. It’s also simply refreshing.
Perhaps part of why Merida is such a strong character is because “Brave” had female involvement at multiple levels. “Brave” remains the only Disney Princess franchise film to have had a female director (“Frozen” also had a female co-director, but Anna and Elsa are not official Disney princesses). In many ways, Merida paved the way for Elsa and Moana. She set a new precedent that Disney films revolving around human female characters don’t have to be focused on romance, but can explore other topics. Merida deserves more recognition for the barriers she broke and for what a compelling and realistic character she is.