Once upon a time, animated princess movies were populated by passive heroines waiting to be rescued by noble but bland princes. Disney has made strides toward addressing this anachronism, giving us, among other notable efforts, Mulan (1998), which features a different kind of female lead, one whose strength, cleverness and courage — not her looks or brawny boyfriend — save the day. Of course, the company has long relied on female protagonists of every stripe, dating back to its first animated feature, Snow White, and running the gamut through Bambi, Cinderella, The Little Mermaid, and on and on. Rival studio Pixar, on the other hand, has never featured a girl or woman in a lead role — until now.
In its new release, Brave, Pixar gives us Merida, a heroine who, like some of her recent Disney forbears, is also courageous, strong and clever, and who doesn’t need a man to fight her battles. But is this new Brave heroine something original, or is she just a pink-cheeked, redheaded version of her Asian Disney predecessor — a sort of Mulan Rouge?
It’s a fight between plucky princesses and only one can rule this Smackdown kingdom.
As a wee child, Scottish Princess Merida (voiced by Boardwalk Empire’s Kelly MacDonald) is given a bow and arrow for her birthday by her hulking father King Fergus (Billy Connolly), much to the disapproval of her mother Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson). Ladies most certainly do not use weapons in Elinor’s world, and the queen intends for her daughter to be the most proper of ladies. This propriety is tested moments later, when the birthday party is interrupted by a bear attack, which leaves King Fergus with a knobby peg leg.
Years later, Fergus has dedicated his life to finding and defeating the creature who took his leg. Merida, now a young woman, has become a skilled archer, much to Queen Elinor’s chagrin. Things come to a head when Elinor informs Merida that it’s time for her to marry one of the princes from neighboring kingdoms to preserve the land’s tenuous peace. The buffoonish princes come to compete for her hand, but Merida has no intention of marrying any of them. Instead, she runs away to the woods where she encounters a will-o’-the-wisp, a fairy-like creature that’s supposed to guide her to her destiny — in this case, the home of a crafty old witch (Julie Walters).
Merida has apparently never before read a fairy tale (or seen a Disney movie), so she begs the witch for a spell that will change her mother and so change Merida’s fate. The spell does indeed change Queen Elinor — into a giant black bear, the very creature that drives her peg-legged husband into a terror. Merida must use all her resources and wiles to undo the spell before it’s too late.
The Defending Champion
Based on a 2,000-year-old Chinese legend, Mulan tells the story of a gawky teenage girl who wants desperately to bring honor to her family. After a disastrous interview with the matchmaker, this looks like an impossibility. Things deteriorate when the Huns invade China and the Emperor decrees that one man from every family must join the army. To save her aging father from military service, Mulan (voiced by Ming-Na) joins the army in his place — chopping off her hair and masquerading as a boy named Ping.
With the help of her mythical guardian, a wisecracking but inept dragon named Mushu (Eddie Murphy), she manages to conceal her gender while winning the respect of her peers. After a few bad starts, Mulan finally proves herself to be a persistent and clever fighter whose bravery and smarts save the life of her regiment and handsome captain, Le Shang (B.D Wong). Nevertheless, when her true identity is revealed, she is thrown out of the army in disgrace and must use all her cunning and courage to save the day once again, but this time as herself.
Both Mulan and Brave offer up stories that are quite simple and accessible, and characters who are engaging and entirely relatable. Mulan is an awkward teenager who wants to impress her family and prove she is worthy of their respect. Merida just wants her mother to listen to her, to understand that she’s not the girl her mother wants her to be, that she wants to be in charge of her own destiny. Many people — particularly strong-willed mothers and daughters — will be able to relate to the plight of both girls. But while Mulan is a standard good-triumphs-over-evil tale, Brave is more original. Instead of traditional Disney romance, it focuses more on family dynamics. There is no doubt Merida and her proper, queenly mother love each other, but just as mothers and daughters have throughout history, they drive each other nuts. Queen Elinor can’t understand why Merida won’t grow up and accept her royal responsibilities, and tomboy Merida — who longs to ride and hunt like her gregarious father — can’t understand why her mum won’t just leave her to it. When Merida’s ill-fated wish turns Queen Elinor into a bear, it ironically helps Merida relate to her mother more as a person.
Brave also boasts a cast of impressive vocal talent. Kelly MacDonald brings heart to the spirited Merida, who is as unruly as her wild mane of red hair. Emma Thompson infuses Queen Elinor with a warmth she might have been lacking in a less qualified actress’s hands. She is entirely sympathetic as the regal and dignified, yet exasperated queen. Billy Connolly and Julie Walters perform admirably as the jovial King Fergus and the wizened old witch, and several supporting players also make an impact. The cast of Mulan comes up short in this department. While Ming Na does a good job as Mulan, she is surrounded by a group of characters who are mostly forgettable and clichéd. Eddie Murphy is very funny as the fast-talking dragon Mushu, but his contemporary ramblings are jarring in the context of ancient China.
Mulan does provide some appealing visuals — the Huns’ charge down the mountain was particularly impressive for 1998 — and some beautiful landscapes, but they seem washed out in comparison to the more fully realized magical Scottish landscape of Brave. Composer Patrick Doyle provides Brave with a sweeping score that deftly weaves together all the film’s action, heart and humor. Three original songs skillfully mix together the classical and contemporary sounds of Scotland. Despite being a musical, Mulan’s undistinguished songs add little to the story, and the score feels dated with its heavy use of synthesizers.
In Brave, the gorgeous Scottish Highlands and the expertly rendered costumes give viewers a real sense of time and place, whereas it’s hard to tell where and when Mulan is set. No one seems particularly Chinese, particularly Murphy’s jive-talking dragon. Most of the costumes look more like something out of a Japanese anime. Indeed, most of Asian culture seems to be reduced to kimono-clad worshippers praying to cartoonish ancestors, and the social problems presented involve only issues of honor.
Both Mulan and Brave are respectable attempts at creating alternative role models for girls who don’t buy into the pink princess culture, but Brave provides deeper characters, better humor and more stunning visuals. Kudos to Disney for busting open the doors for little girls who want more choices in life, but in this battle, if you’re looking for family-friendly viewing for the princess (or prince) in your life, it is Pixar’s Brave whose arrow strikes closest to the bull’s-eye.