Pixar's first 12 films have starred cowboys, superheroes, rodent chefs, intrepid fish, and introspective robots. But, in 17 years, no film from the lauded animation studio (part of the Disney universe) has ever had a female lead… until now. Brave, the studio's 13th feature, which opens Friday, revolves around Merida, a fiery-haired Scottish princess who relies on bravery and unladylike archery skills to undo a beastly curse and change her fate. That Pixar is debuting Merida at all is a watershed moment. But expectations that she'll be a strong female role model who can stand beside the likes of Buzz Lightyear and break the Disney princess mold are awfully high. After all the build up, is she everything critics hoped she'd be?
Absolutely: She's a "defiant lass," says Melissa Anderson at The Village Voice, and a "much-welcome corrective to retrograde Disney heroines of the past and the company's unstoppable pink-princess merchandising." She's also unique among recent ass-kicking heroines. The Hunger Games' Katniss and Snow White and the Huntsman's titular princess stew in insipid love triangles as often as they engage in battle. Merida's most distracting relationship is with her mother. At one point she roars to Mom: "I'd rather die than be like you"— perhaps "the most radical line ever uttered in a Disney production."
"Brave: Unmanageable heiress"
She's a letdown: By portraying Merida as a woman fighting for a say in her fate and who she can marry, Brave "flirts with actual commentary on the plight of women," says Richard Larson at Slant Magazine. It also has promising things to say about the relationship between mothers and daughters. But, in the end, it offers "nothing more than a caricature of a well-worn conceit": A bratty princess defies society's expectations by breaking all the rules and acting as she pleases. It's just repackaged for a new generation of moviegoers "who haven't met Princess Jasmine from Aladdin and don't realize that they're eating yesterday's leftovers."
She's actually quite radical: Pixar has been criticized for its decision to make its first female lead, of all stereotypical things, a princess, says Hanna Rosin at Slate. But those naysayers are missing the point. Brave makes radical points about women and power — and not just leadership, but "raw physical power." Merida is a forceful, sometimes even violent woman — jarringly so. She's the rare female character who's not just aggressive, but is also dominant — something that's necessary for a woman to achieve power but is rarely seen. It's a revolutionary character trait for a female cartoon character… even if she is a princess.
"Critics are missing what's radical in Brave"
Consensus: She may be a princess, but Merida is not hampered by stereotypical feminine concerns, and functions as a spirited and independent role model for girls.