Culture

How 'Brave' Accidentally Became One of 2012's Most Socially Relevant Films

Image from ‘Brave’ © 2012 Disney/Pixar; Unorthodox cover via Simon & Schuster
Image from ‘Brave’ © 2012 Disney/Pixar; Unorthodox cover via Simon & Schuster

I missed "Brave" when it came out in theaters; I was mildly curious, but by Pixar standards it seemed like a throwback to an earlier mode of storytelling -- one with Disney's sticky fingerprints all over it. Thankfully this week's Blu-ray and DVD release has given me a chance to see the film for what it really is: a striking portrait of modern family life and contemporary social issues.

Much attention was paid to the film's inclusion of a strong mother character (voiced by dialect-chameleon Emma Thompson), a rarity among Disney's films. However, the relationship between Queen Elinor and her husband Fergus (Billy Connolly) is impressively egalitarian and a rarity by medieval (or even twentieth century) standards: a true royal partnership, in which both players have their own strengths and weaknesses, relying on each other for specific kinds of emotional support. That so much could be conveyed in so little screen-time is a testament to the thoughtfulness and sensitivity of the directing/screenwriting team, which happens to be made up of two men and two women.

One detail that put me off early this year when promo clips were first making the rounds was the storyline about Merida's arranged marriage. Really, I thought, has culture progressed so little since 1959's "Sleeping Beauty" -- or even '90s classics like "Aladdin" and "Beauty and the Beast" -- that Disney is still harping on this particularly outdated issue?

I would never have predicted that arranged marriage would actually become a major topic of discussion in 2012, mostly owing to Deborah Feldman's bestselling memoir Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots, which launched conversations on nearly every major news and talk show and sparked outrage from orthodox religious groups -- not just Hasidim -- who were thrust into the spotlight to defend their practices. Meanwhile, more and more refugees from these arrangements surged forward to share their own experiences, inspired by Feldman's candor. (Here's my own interview with the author at the time of the book's release.)

Pixar couldn't have foreseen this any more than I could have, but the timing of their film guaranteed that both parents and children would be exploring these issues simultaneously, at different levels of comprehension. Watching this movie now, through post-Unorthodox eyes, it's tempting to revise history in order to imagine that the former was a direct result of the latter, when actually "Brave" had been in development since  2008 or earlier, before Feldman's life as an obedient (more or less) Hasidic mother and housewife had fully splintered. Now, Merida's dilemma resonates stronger than perhaps intended, amplified by the clamor of so many real life stories.

It's exciting to see that what could have been yet another lazy retread of familiar fairy tale ideas (with the inevitable modern twist) instead became one of the year's most forward-thinking family dramas. I'm sorry I doubted you, Pixar! I should have expected no less from a studio whose upcoming films include projects currently known only as "The Untitled Pixar Movie About Día de los Muertos" and "The Untitled Pixar Movie that Takes You Inside the Mind."