Brave and Macbeth

Playing a Disney princess is akin to playing a character in a William Shakespeare play. You’re not going to be the only one inhabiting the role, and chances are, you’re not even the first one to take on the part. These are characters that are bigger than one human being and that includes the people who wrote them in the first place. Figures like Ariel, Snow White, or Elsa endure for so long that they could never be tied down to just one performer.

Read More: https://www.looper.com/901268/the-untold-truth-of-brave/?utm_campaign=clip

Quote from DOUGLAS LAMAN ” The Untold Truth Of Brave.” Looper 2022

As I have done several times before on this site, I’m going to compare a Disney princess to a Shakespearean character, and if you’ve been paying attention, you can probably guess to whom I’m going to compare Merida, a Scottish woman who seeks counsel from a witch. That’s right, Lady Macbeth! But I’m not just going to write about how Macbeth is similar to Brave. In fact, I’m going to primarily focus on how they are not similar. I would argue that the film’s greatest strengths occur when it parallels and subverts a lot of the elements of Macbeth. I would further argue that the film’s greatest weakness is that it didn’t go far enough with these themes and ideas, and due to the film’s troubled (dare I say… CURSED) production history, it is frankly a bit unfocused and doesn’t have a successful conclusion because it didn’t commit to the ideas it set up at the beginning of the film. 

Plot Summary

In medieval Scotland, a young princess named Merida (Kelly MacDonald), is strong, a skilled fighter, and a superlative archer. Yet, these skills are irrelevant and invisible to her mother Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson), who believes that a princess should strive to be beautiful, poised, diplomatic, and willing to sacrifice her own freedom for the good of the realm. This is why she has positioned her daughter, the heir to the throne, to marry one of her father’s allies, which she has no interest in doing.

Merida chafes at her mother’s controlling nature and wishes to change her fate. First, she defies her mother openly by challenging her suitors to an archery contest, and (in a glorious mash-up of Robin Hood and Odysseus), she defeats them all with three excellent bullseyes!

Faced with her child’s rebellion and the diplomatic disaster that her behavior caused, Ellinor is of course furious. Earlier in the film, Ellinor mentions that a selfish prince brought his whole kingdom into bloodshed and war because of an act of defiance like this. Mother and daughter have a bitter argument that causes Merida to leave home and try to change her fate a different way.

Merida follows the legendary Will O’the Wisp into the forest and meets a witch, who promises to brew her a potion to change her fate and….

You have a lot of good left to give to this World
Cover art for “Brother Bear”

[Spoiler alert] This is where the story gets ridiculous. It turns out that the potion changes Merida’s mother into a bear. The second half of the movie is basically a Brother Bear ripoff where a character turned into a bear has to learn the error of their ways, and deal with being an animal. Yes, there’s conveniently a monster bear called M’ordu who Elinor has to fight as a bear to protect Merida, and with her mother unable to speak, Merida finally has to speak to the lords like a princess, which is all well and good, but the drama and character arcs set up in the first half are completely muddled once Elinor consumes that potion.

The cursed production

I was completely baffled by the choice to make Ellinor turn into a bear, especially given how grounded the first half of the movie was, but I want to make it clear- I do not blame the creator. Brenda Chapman, the original writer/ director had a very personal and clear vision for the story, as you can see in the quote below.

[I was inspired by] My love of Scotland, the old Grimms and Hans Christian Andersen fairy tales, but mostly my relationship with my daughter. She has been quite a challenge to my “authority” since she was five years old. I love that she is so strong, but it sure doesn’t make my job easy! She is my Merida … and I adore her.

Brenda Chapman, Ms. Magazine 2012

Chapman, who also directed The Prince Of Egypt, is clearly a very talented writer and director. It’s hard to know what the original story Chapman envisioned was, but as the quote above indicates, it was always intended to be a fantasy story that explores the relationship between a mother and daughter. Maybe the bear transformation was part of Chapman’s original idea, but I have to believe it would have been handled better than this.

In any case, the production suffered because Chapman found herself at odds with John Lasseter, Pixar’s CEO. Their clashes no doubt made it harder to develop the story in a productive way. Chapman points out that her being a female director, trying to tell the story of the first-ever female Pixar protagonist was in itself a ‘hard sell’ to the higher-ups at Pixar.

“I hit a lot of the issues with being a woman and also trying to put forward a female-led story.” She also claimed that her conflicts with former Pixar chief creative officer John Lasseter related to her being let go as the director of “Brave.” Chapman further remarked that plans to shift “Brave” to a father-daughter narrative didn’t work out and the film circled closer back to her original mother-daughter vision.

Read More: https://www.looper.com/901268/the-untold-truth-of-brave/?utm_campaign=clip

Brenda Chapman, writer and original director of “Brave”

By contrast, look at how the second director Mark Andrews describes the experience:

So it’s kind of like we are all pals and there’s a really good camaraderie and support system here, so if I’m sitting there going “I’m drowning! I’m drowning! I’m failing and I don’t know what’s going on, I need help!” they are there to help.

Read More: https://www.slashfilm.com/520673/film-interview-mark-andrews-director-pixars-brave/?utm_campaign=clip

Mark Andrews, Slashfilm.com

“I will not trust you, aye, nor no longer stay in your cursed company, DISNEY!”

So you can see that the decision to sack both Chapman and her original idea for the script probably cost Pixar precious time that they couldn’t use to develop the film; they must have grudgingly realized that throwing the mother-daughter relationship story aspect away wouldn’t work, and had to rescue that idea instead of developing it through the rest of the script.

So when I came on, I looked at it and I go “Okay, I just need to strip this down to who’s story is it? It’s Merida’s. Let’s go back to the basics with Merida and clean everything out. What does she need to learn? What is her arc? How is she going to go through this story? Who are the characters around her? Who is her biggest foil? Well that’s her mom, right? Why?” I had to just take all of these elements that they already had, but focus them down and clear a lot of the clutter away. There was a lot more magic involved and the magic was affecting the environment. “Do I actually need that to tell the story?” So there were those things.

Read More: https://www.slashfilm.com/520673/film-interview-mark-andrews-director-pixars-brave/?utm_campaign=clip

Mark Andrews, second director of Brave

In addition, the new director probably didn’t have a personal connection to the story, nor the support of the studio. I think it’s fair to say that based on Andrew’s description, Pixar was a bit of a boy’s club (at least in 2012), and I get the feeling based on the results of the film, that they weren’t putting as much effort into this story that features a female protagonist. If I were making this film, I’d probably connect the two halves of the story and borrow liberally from tropes in the story of Macbeth.

Shakespearean tropes in “Brave”

First of all, I’d like to mention that there are veteran Shakespeareans in the cast and creative team- Elinor is voiced by Emma Thompson, one of the greatest Shakespeareans of our time. Further, the movie is scored by Patrick Doyle, who did the music for every one of Kenneth Branaugh’s Shakespeare films. You can read about both of them in my review of Branaugh’s Henry V.

Trope 1: Fate vs. Responsibility

As in my review of Encanto, the title character of Macbeth is not the protagonist of Brave. In fact, he’s barely seen in the film at all, but he is mentioned many times; the wicked prince who eventually becomes the fearsome bear Mor’du.

Obviously, there are also parallels with King Lear, where the patriarch splits his kingdom between his children, and their cruelty and selfishness lead to civil war. However, I feel the Macbeth parallel is even more pronounced. Not only is the story set in Scotland, but the wicked prince feels entitled to the throne, and uses witchcraft to try and obtain it.

Both Banquo and Macbeth encounter the witches, but only Mabeth takes their prophecies to mean he must kill the king. He and his wife choose a dark fate and show themselves to be lacking in morals. Macbeth becomes an internal monster, while Mor’du becomes monstrous in every way.

What makes Mor’du work is that he is literally a cautionary tale for what Merida may become- her mother tells his story to warn her that if she continues to selfishly value herself above her kingdom, she may cause chaos and bloodshed, which she nearly does when she humiliates the lords at the archery contest.

Trope 2: Magic as forbidden desire

The film centers around the ancient Scottish myth of the will-o-‘the-wisp, which guides characters to their destinies. Like The Force, there is a dark and light aspect to the wisp. Sometimes they help people improve their fates, while sometimes they tempt people to their doom.

Both Merida and the wicked prince follow the wisp to a witch’s cottage and they both ask for the same thing- to change their fate. The prince asks for strength so he can win the civil war and become king, while Merida asks for the ability to change her mother’s mind.

It’s also interesting that everything in the witch’s shop is bear themed. This could be a weird quirk of hers, or it might be another subtle way to thematically bind these two characters together. Maybe the old witch can sense these characters have similar spirits. It’s also interesting that the witch keeps carving bears when she gives up witchcraft, perhaps out of guilt for creating the monster Mor’du. As I mentioned in my post on the witches, they might not necessarily be evil, they merely facilitate the fate of the characters.

Trope 3: Toxic Masculinity and patriarchy

Witchcraft has long been a shorthand in theater and film for female power. Sadly, in Macbeth, it is framed as monstrous, that is, both attractive and morally wrong. When Lady Macbeth prays to dark spirits, it is because she seems unable to find any kind of power for herself, and resorts to witchcraft.

The raven himself is hoarse
That croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan
Under my battlements. Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full
Of direst cruelty!

Lady Macbeth, Act I, Scene 5.

As this funny sketch from Second City indicates, in a modern context, Lady Macbeth’s problem isn’t that she wants power or wants to make herself queen, it’s that she goes about it the wrong way. I absolutely love the way the actress says: “I really need a job.” It’s hilariously tragic the way the sketch sums up how useless and isolated this character feels.

Sorry about the ad, but again, this sketch is useful to contextualize Lady Macbeth’s frustrations with a patriarchial society- if female power is considered abhorrent, she feels she has no choice but to use abhorrent means, which begs the question- which is more evil- dark magic, or the patriarchy?

Merida and Lady Macbeth have the same problem; society has pre-determined their fate as nothing more than wives and mothers which is why they both seek out magic to change that fate. Likewise, Macbeth and Mor’du are driven by toxic masculinity to change their fates by violently seizing power.

Ian McKellen as Macbeth performing the Dagger Speech (Act II, Scene i).

What’s great about this film is that it has buried within all its silly bear comic subplot, a clever spin on a classic tale that touches on patriarchy, ambition, and greed. Like Encanto and Lear, what I like about Brave is that it takes Shakespearean tragedy as an example of what almost happened to the main character. I wish that some of the fluff and fur was trimmed off this story and that Brenda Chapman’s vision for the film was truly realized, to make the film a true masterpiece.