Directed by: Brenda Chapman, Mark Andrews
Starring: Kelly Macdonald, Emma Thompson, Julie Walters, Billy Connolly
This is not your average Disney fairytale (via Disney/Pixar design), it’s gone back to the days of epic verses, it’s not just a piece of a story, it’s the story, digging right to the roots of humanity’s cultural history. There’s no charming princes, theatre singing, show stealing sidekicks, they’ve tapped into the raw origins of myth and psychology.
I don’t usually delve like this into Hollywood for reviews, unlike filmmakers in other countries (except US-cross border projects) they tend to radiate symbolism all over the place but don’t explain it and act like it’s a coincidence but here it’s loud and proud.
It garnered overwhelming positive review and support from viewers but there were some it just rubbed the wrong way and who probably without understanding dismissed it as a dud. The emotive issues and relationships involved between parent-child and boundaries were too much for some people and hopefully this review will help to dispel the misperceptions and misconceptions.
In medieval Scotland a princess was born, her name was Merida, her mother Elinor and father Fergus lived seemingly contently until they were attacked by a huge black bear called Mor’du. Mother ran to protect the child and father lost his leg in fighting. We see them again later in a castle with Merida as a teenager and with 3 little brothers (triplets). Merida has come ‘of age’ and has to get married much to her surprise and dismay, Elinor is nonchalant about it and feels it a done deal it’s just a question of which suitor will be the one. This causes a tear in the fabric of their relationship and things will never be the same again as Merida fights for her right to her own body and Elinor battles with tradition/duty.
Action packed and emotive from the start the friction with the characters vs the audience start when Merida is given a cake by an old woman in the woods (Crafty Carver who won’t admit she’s a witch) to give to her mother, the cake turns Elinor into a bear and if the spell’s riddle isn’t solved in time she will remain one…
Arranged Marriage – How dare she control my entire life? How dare she defy me?
The standout theme of this film is arranged marriage, and for some people I’ve come across translated into ‘what a spoiled, selfish s*** that girl was’ and ‘I wouldn’t have tolerated her [Merida’s] behaviour’. Personally I’m totally, utterly against arranged marriage for myself, I don’t like or tolerate inferences from meddlers and people with too much spare time on their hands who then see a single person and think one/some/all of the following ‘a project to enjoy, something/profit to gain, a wedding to arrange and more children to play with that aren’t mine and since this one’s old and boring now’ let alone people who actually try to set me up… One of my aunts once told me that my mum was going to marry me off and thereafter I spent years in a campaign to show I was independent but still dutiful without being able to mention the incident. Then when I was asked what I thought about arranged marriage for 2 other members of the family (which I never told them because I didn’t want to sour their relationships) in no uncertain terms I disagreed and was having no part in it. Obviously that meant I was in the bad books for a while and the wannabe arrangers more friendly than usual with their previously intended marriage targets, typical, every time one of them had an argument they’d cozy up with one of the others even if they’d argued just before, playing off each other and since I don’t I end up looking like the trouble maker.
That said, I’m not against it for people in their 20s+ who decide they want to look for someone to get married to and go to an ‘elder’/marriage maker/family/agency etc to make it happen. As long as they’ve done so without any pressure, obligation or manipulation of any kind, are aware that they might not find the ‘right candidate’, and if they do get married it might not work out and divorce is ok. I’m not into the ‘new’ marriage brokering of blind dates because ‘children’ are still under the duress of duty to participate even if they ‘play the game’ in a way that suits them and even though their parents say they can say no if they want to (it’d be easier if they just got an actual doll set instead of playing barbie and ken with the kids and be happy with them as they are without pushing them to add more to the brood just because they’re ready to be a grandparent and/or want more property or to get someone abroad/into a certain family).
Not all arranged marriages go or end badly, some people learn to live together respectfully, even contentedly and/or actually fall in love like Elinor and Fergus but it’s a big risk to take with a life especially when children and emotions can’t be undone.
I didn’t like that Elinor was made out to be the bad parent in contrast to Fergus’ reticence and lax attitude but we were shown the political bonds that held the clans together – they formed an allegiance after disliking each other due to a common enemy and that alliance assured by property, title and basically knowing they’ve got a foot in the door in each other’s families and spreading their lineage. Interestingly the film highlighted the role of women in perpetuating and enforcing arranged marriage as well as being victims though for some reason the men were shown as none too bothered by it nor resistant to the idea of changing it later on and more interested in fighting & drinking. They were just going along with it for the sake of appearances and because it was the done thing whilst the mother was for it also out of a misplaced sense of love, duty and what she thought was right. Some people do that because they feel it’s the only or best security and even escape they can provide or have and if it comes down to risking happiness with security then they go with security (though many women find their personal safety has also been compromised). Elinor says ‘it’s only marriage, not the end of the world’ which was hypocritical given she has a happy marriage and is the basis of the most important things in her life i.e. her family and position. So it’s not ‘only’ marriage, it’s a huge thing and it can be a deciding factor in people’s personal world’s i.e. their life. Then there are those women who are like the men in the film just go along with it without thinking it through. Elinor didn’t have sympathetic circumstances other than ‘this is how royalty behaves’ and ‘its for the sake of the kingdom’ aka its the duty of the acknowledged offspring of royalty the representative of god to sacrifice oneself for the sake of the kingdom/people (more pervasive in a tribal setting like this than modern royal counterparts) and that restriction is well played through the attire given to Merida. Elinor cared deeply for Merida but couldn’t balance the child/sentient being vs property/object, and who along with Merida were ultimately taught a lesson by a higher mother figure.
This film shows how 2 close but very frustrated people have to rely on each other in uncertain conditions without community and convention to tell them what to do or provide examples. Merida learns the responsibility of having a dependent, Elinor is taken out of her comfort zone of protocol and has to re-learn how to communicate and ultimately they have to save each other from Mor’du and Fergus & blood thirsty clans, plus figure out the crone’s cryptic message to mend their broken bond without being able to contact her again, all within a time limit.
Parent-Child (similar to Teacher-Student or Guardian-Vulnerable)
The driving theme of this film is parent child relations and whereas we covered boundaries, this part is about communication. Let me just say that I’m only going to refer to the situation shown in the film rather than families in general, I’m well aware that there are very problematic, ungrateful children that parents/guardians just can’t cope with for example. However in regards to the film and similarly to the reactions provoked by the above, trying to talk to someone you love or spend a lot of time with such as family and dependents/co-dependents can be very difficult. If there’s a power imbalance aka the double yet understandable standard of a parent over child it can be very frustrating for a child to talk about their thoughts/feelings, frustration can lead to crying and/or lashing out when they just want to be angry and then embarrassment at the inability to express themselves clearly. A lot of parents react in just as juvenile a manner but instead of crying can be smug and rely on ‘see I told you so’ and ‘now you’ll see how hard it is yourself’. I can understand that in single parents or those without much if any support, but in the case of Merida’s mother she’s got a solid, respected position in the family and power/influence, she just reacted out of being questioned and her plans rejected. That doesn’t justify Merida giving her spiked food and then claiming it wasn’t her fault (it wasn’t fully her fault). However I think the main thing a lot of people I’ve come across miss is the symbolism of the bear and indeed turning her mother into one was not an insult at all despite being presented as a rash, immature move necessary to move the story along and for character development. (If it was ‘real life’ I’d be against that but film audiences need and crave drama otherwise they feel stagnated.
Beauty and the Beast
Apparently there is an event in one’s life, something that severs the psychological umbilical cord. It’s usually an argument or something big enough to make us differ from our parents/guardians in some way. It doesn’t have to be permanent, it can be a temporary thing but it’s a defining event that marks a transformation in the relationship.
My first thoughts when watching were ‘this is very well designed, beautiful reconstruction eh what the? They didn’t have bears in 10th century Scotland!’ and then ‘Oh’ Disney weren’t messing around (as much as usual) with this one.
Maid-Mother-Crone (the Witch and Bear)
Child to Woman and Mother to Dark Mother
That is the symbolic theme to hold the story up with in comparison/contrast.
There were a lot of goddesses in ancient Britain (and of course these Isles have been through many waves of European invasion), you can still see some relegated as modern day saints and others masculanized or removed over time. The significance of the triple goddess and the ‘other’ (nowadays superimposed by the father/son/holy spirit and possibly adversary) has remained in remnants, probably most known here would be the Morrigan, and has been weaved (an intentional term there) into the film. Culturally 4 became 3 with the dark mother sometimes also described as the ‘other’ and that is shown through the masculine in the film aka the story of the 4 brothers/princes inheriting equally and the oldest believing he was robbed – 4 brothers became 3. Then from the father (Fergus) comes the triplet brothers (1+3 which in itself is symbolic of the 3 become 1, and 1 become 3 and ultimately the 4, in one way the triplets could be seen as one being and interchangeable with the father) and then the 4 clans with 3 fighting over the right to Merida. Celts are no strangers to bear symbolism and the Gauls have the mother goddess Artio, to the Irish Celts ‘Art’ meant ‘God’ and divinity in translation to people’s social structure = royalty.
I titled this review ‘Beauty and the Beast’ as an indicator/short form of the above (hey it was a limited space title). Neither female protagonist or the witch is either Beauty or the Beast, all characters are both with the witch being the transformation agent and the ‘dark mother’. Hence the use of the will-o’-the-wisps, like the witch sometimes seen as tricksters and here are her messengers/guides apt since they’re known as foolish fire and the fool is not an idiot or clown but a symbol of hidden knowledge.
The Dark Mother is a figure usually given wicked stepmother/jealous wife/evil aunt status but originally she was the fierce protector, the wisdom, always tying back to blackness, time and eventually from the ones most still widely known, Kali of pre-Vedic Hinduism (i.e. she pre-dates modern Hinduism being an entity recognized worldwide but Hinduism is the living remnants of that and that’s where the root mother is ‘housed’).
The hard I mean dark mother is often seen as ‘tough love’ even cruel but when it comes down to the overbearing/unbearable vs the can’t bear it, she helps the latter. I’ve never been one for throwing your kids out of trees, off cliffs, off ice caps and watching them hit everything possible on the way down to see if they’re strong enough to survive but at the same time male lions kill other people’s cubs. The dark mother is usually the last resort, when things have gotten so bad, sh*t has hit the fan and covered everybody, when even the bad guys and not just their victims are calling ma/maat/mat/math(a)/mahi/mata/m-om (root words for mother) for help. It’s upto her to teach us some bloody manners or return the child (creation/manifestation) back to whence it came (inside herself to some). In ‘smaller’ form usually as the Daughter she’s shown in stories and scripture to help people on a lesser scale.
However just because one is a bear and the bear is a symbol doesn’t mean they’re all nice or good, not all women are goddesses not all men are gods not all children are innocent and not all bears (or any living example of a symbol) are loveable. If you’re a beast, even unintentionally, after a while you become one. It’s also easy to forget oneself in transformation (and be pushed into it) to lose consciousness/self-awareness.
Micro and macro storytelling – Bears, bears, bears!
The bad bear, brother bear or the bear who didn’t learn his lesson. In usual roundabout fashion (even grandmothers/witches/crones are busy and a lot beings need help) a circular nature is shown here. Breathe in, breathe out and repeat. It is said that the original Dark Mother/the source made the Mother/manifestation who was also of course the Daughter but she was too big and too multi-dimensional for the smaller parts of herself (stars, planets, carbon lifeforms etc) to comprehend/appreciate/be in contact with other than in a mundane ‘this is where we live and what it looks like’ sense so the Mother/Daughter made another Daughter to act as a link/representative. But there was a bad apple so to speak, he resented and rejected the mother (tough when you’re a part of a body) but succeeded in a takeover, like a deadly illness/injury that bit by bit takes consciousness and energy. To some He is described as a/the malformed part. In a historical, Earth sense (since the story is not just about Earth) it seems to coincide with patriarchy. As with conquerors in general (religious, political, business, schools of thought) if you can’t vanquish the conquered you copy and assimilate it/them and history tends to get repeated as empires rise and fall. Whilst the daughter/mother/dark mother is still heavily hidden/veiled in our current versions of older cultures, the fourth is even harder to find out about but is still mirrored in some. The ‘lost’ one, is it the traitor, the original sinner who defiled his/the mother? Anyway, 4 brothers, 1 turned into a bear (Mor’du) by the crone and didn’t make it through the transformation properly and guess what – he already attacked the mother&daughter in smaller form Elinor and Merida (who both represent the daughter of the dark mother/crone) when Merida was a baby, Fergus lost part of a leg fending him off (losing a part to/due to the lost part itself) and here he is again attacking them again in another transformation period. He is the embittered obstacle that couldn’t be dealt with before.
Ultimately Elinor and Merida change and become even closer and Merida is the figurehead of this story, she is Brave. The daughter of the bear and in Celtic mythology bears were also symbolic of bravery, although people were scared of them in many European/Eurasian areas they were still respected. In other cultures such as to Native Americans bears symbolize power, strength, nurturing/protection and introspection (particularly in dreams in Shamanism).
From the Gauls we have Artio (also known as Dea Artio – see Deanism and Filianism which again is the focus on the Daughter/Mother/Dark Mother as the Supreme Creator/Creatrix/Matrix) the bear mother goddess and with the spread of Celts in general we can’t ignore their link to the Romans (and hence Greeks). Goddess Fortuna favours the brave, and Artemis (also known as Artemis Kalliste) and Diana (thought to have been the cultural morph/absorber of Artio) have goddess-bear symbolism. As aforementioned the word ‘Art’ to Irish Celts meant God, and that’s shortened from Bear Mother/Goddess. In Greece we have ‘arktoi’ for ‘bears’ more specifically ‘she-bears’ with ’arkt’ being Indo-European for ‘bears’. Also remember the link between Artemis and C/Kallisto (many k-words get changed or added to with ‘c’) going on to the constellation Ursa Major and Ursa Minor ‘the little she-bear’ the bear or the north, the Pole Star seen best at the ‘arc’tic. Kallisto was raped by Zeus/Jupiter much to the embittered Hera/Juno, who is generally shown as the angry wife/evil stepmother morph/version of the older ‘dark mother’, turned Kallisto into a bear after she gave birth. Her son as a teenager met his mother bear again without knowing her and tried to kill her – mirrored by Fergus trying to kill Elinor in the film and Merida stopping him. (In the Sophianic Myth, Deanism and Filianism the malformed/wrongly made later becoming the lost and twisted one represents the ‘son’ who is also in later religions a/the father figure as like the daughter/mother connection they/he is ultimately a son – easier for the modern mindset to think of in terms of the Graceo-Roman scenes of fathers/sons marrying or just sleeping with their mothers/sisters). Merida speaks back to root stories so instead of Mother-Son being sent to the stars in heavenly union and rekindling of the relationship this one strips back the false/bad father/son (Zeus/Jupiter parallel) connection and makes Merida the daughter saviour (again). Then all live ‘happily ever after as a happy family with children (not just the youngsters because all the characters are ultimately children to the crone) making their own choices’ – in actuality we don’t know the ending of the Daughter/Mother/Dark Mother root culture creation/manifestation story and the Sophianic Myth but Disney can’t say that – bit anti-climatic for the audience.
In Europe there has been a linguistic taboo over the words for bear so many opted for phrases particularly including their colour and the ability to destroy/get angry. The Indo-European words ‘Bher’ (bright, brown) and ‘Rkso’ with the Sanskrit word being ‘rkshas’ meaning ‘bear’. The problem and confusion is in morphed/twisted language e.g. any Hindu should know that rakshas refer to demons or enemies of God rather than thinking of bears (though most don’t know that pretty much all the ancient religions say the gods/God/demons we know of as the ruling pantheons and singular today came from various places in space and got stuck here) but remember Kali ‘The [Great] Destroyer [of Worlds]’ (Kali means Black and Time) is older, tribal pre-organized religion found through and all over the world from the streamlined Hinduism aka Buddhism to the beautiful dreadlocked versions in Africa to the triple goddesses throughout Europe and the Black Madonna. The words with Rkso and its variants indicate or mean destruction, not demon by default – demon is the association because usually destruction is seen as bad (whereas raskshas are evil hence demonic in action). For example both Hindus and Muslims would recognize the use of ‘shaytan’ and ‘satan’ as definite demons (yes plural) both by behaviour and species sub-type (though daemons/jinn are not defined as bad or good as individuals, they’re another species group) and the word ‘devil’ is anti-devi, definitely anti-God. In the case of bears another example is Japan’s use of the words ‘yokai’ for spirits, ghosts/phantoms and ‘kami’ for deities, gods, demons denote various groups in general rather than saying they are good/bad).
Even though I don’t agree with the notion of ‘the end justifying the means’ in ‘real life’, the story in Brave isn’t a blame game to take offense at and pick sides – Merida and Elinor needed each other to grow, closer to each other and as individuals. Hey if you ever get the chance to turn someone into a bear, generally the answer would be no way jose (I hope), but bears are at least stilled beloved in today’s culture. Many of us have moved on from the terrible rituals associated with bear worship with adults giving toy versions to children and pets all the time who have them for comfort and companionship. Although many of us still continue to sacrifice and torture others for enjoyment/business/entertainment and even in religious worship in the act of will hurt creations and disciples whilst praising/appeasing the very beings who supposedly made them. Yeah because hurting someone’s beloved/one of their beloved will endear them to you.
My Mum’s the same, prefers straight hair (usually has hers plaited) and makes fun of my bushy locks :-p
Whilst the bear symbolism is rampant the archer is less obvious (anyone wanna lookup famous archer princes and divine beings – numerous to say the least with notable characters from India, China and Western Asia/Middle East). The bow and arrow in general symbolism tends to alternate between phallic imagery, fighting instincts to warlike tendencies but also truth and clarity and fiery Merida the Archer on her horse has an ode to Sagittarius. In conjunction with the bear the characteristic of introspection during hibernation, self-evaluation is one of the Jewish attributes to the bow and arrow. The placement of arrows is also code for Native Americans, left and right but also a broken arrow meant peace, two arrows in opposite directions meant war and crossed arrows meant friendship. We don’t see that in Brave however and her use of them mostly showed her indomitable spirit, warrior nature, independent mind and ability to reach her goals. Possibly worth noting that akin to Merida breaking Elinor’s shackles of royal pageantry, Elinor threw Merida’s regal looking bow into the fire forcing her to have to use another, plain one. They broke their boundaries and went back to the wild/nature in more ways than one.
What’s in a name
Whilst Elinor, Fergus, Hamish, Hubert and Harris (the triplets) can be easily identified with Scottish peoples Merida (mare-uh-duh) is an interesting name. In the above I’ve explained that the Daughter-Mother-Dark Mother story has been inverted over time to male characters and in what we think of as traditional we would associate her character with a prince. At first glance ‘Merida’ is similar to ‘Meridel’ and ‘Meredith’ (and it is) though to people of the Latin Americas they’d probably think it Spanish. In common in the UK usage it’s a male name in Scotland and as part of Brave sort of reclaiming its heritage we have the princess with the prince’s name and being the saviour with the royal/divine connection.
Names and words that have context e.g. describe personality (like when I described above the taboo around using their direct words for ‘bear’ in Europe) can be tough to understand so it’s easier to work backwards from their common meanings to find their roots.
Meridel and Meredith are in the ‘Mary’ family (like with Spanish Marita, Marie and all of which have a water connection to root term ‘Mori’), Meridel means ’merry/joy’ most probably from ‘mear’ in Gaelic and Meredith means ‘great ruler’ and interestingly in Hebrew means ‘rebellion/defiant’.
Mer- to rub away/harm but there’s also (s)mer which is to deserve/share
Duh – Germanic form meaning strong
As for Mor’du
In Gaelic: mòrdha is great/noble and it seems the ‘du’ can be taken from the ‘dubh’ for black.
Root term ‘Medhu’ means honey/mead – that taboo in Europe meant that in Slavic areas bears were called honey-eaters and the root term in current Hindustani/Bengali it’s still madhu for sweet/mead (but depending on dialect/place can be modhu).
As an exact word in current language the French mordu is to bite/be bitten.
The animation is sumptuous from the start and somewhat contrasted by the less realistic human characters but that is characteristic of Disney/Pixar. The textures in the environments shone through from lush, dense greenery, to the flowing water and suitably murky atmosphere at night especially at the ruins.
I’m not an expert, I haven’t been to Scotland but reading early articles (Brave was announced in 2008) it seems the research team took the time to explore places for scenes they’d like and of which people recognized in the movie. Mythically I liked the setting of the witch in the woods/grove and the stone circle as a gateway/barrier and according to Wikipedia they actually made and registered 3 original tartans for the clans which apparently caused a little political kafuffle.
Interestingly enough though even I can see that for the level of attention given to the setting and story Brave seems to be set in multiple time periods, the physical appearance/mannerisms at times… I don’t know if that was intentional as if to say this is a story that spans generations/traverses time or they just liked what they saw/had in mind and wanted to put it all in! Either way at least it works.
It was a bit shocking to see Merida as a teenager, it was like looking at myself but a pale skin version. Her hair was exactly like mine (mine was even auburn/copper with gold hints at age 14/15) and I know there are other ‘Cousin It’s out there but the few I’ve seen have straight-ish hair. I’d never met anyone else with the big bird’s nest! Apparently it took Pixar the best part of the 4 years since the film was announced in 2008 to draw her hair leaving them only 6 months for the rest.
Given that Brave isn’t the norm for Disney I was glad that characters didn’t burst into song let alone repeatedly. That’s not to say that Disney doesn’t have a catalogue of great, catchy, sing-a-longs but seriously, no. For some people singing is a deeply personal thing so I’m glad that Merida has snippets of song at the beginning sung in her mind. Even the comic relief (her brothers) don’t sing and aren’t really in your face like in other movies, if anything they’re abit creepy rather than funny.
I appreciated the use of Scottish instruments and vocals in the score though given it is an action packed film I didn’t notice it so much during those scenes, I noticed it more in a scenes like when Merida is teaching Elinor to be a bear. I also enjoyed hearing the different accents and Doric (dialect) which I just about understood though that may have partially been due to the tone and circumstance. As a language overall the pronunciation of vowels and composition is obviously different but l also liked hearing the emphasis on each syllable. The enunciation didn’t sound lazy though it did sound conversational and comfortable.
“There’s no point marrying a girl who doesn’t want to be married.”
At this point I would usually give comparisons, and there was a book I thought was called Brave that I borrowed from a library approx 7 years ago, Young Adult genre but for some reason I’ve never been able to find it since and can’t remember the author… It was a about a girls orphanage where they don’t have names or personal items and wear a grey plain uniform because they aren’t allowed to have personal identity. One of the girls rebels and breaks out to tell people that the institution isn’t benevolent like it purports and to find another girl’s family. She’s found out, kept in isolation and discovers a terrible secret, offered a bribe but maintains her courage of conviction. After a while everybody forgets about her except one girl who uses her memory to change things. If anyone knows the author and perhaps new/different title please let me know.