Brave: a Wonderful, Must-See For Celtophiles

Movie Poster – copyright Walt Disney Pictures

The following are my thoughts on the film “Brave” which may contain spoilers.  Please skip to the very end if you haven’t seen the film and don’t want anything ruined!

I recently went to the movie theater to see the latest offering from Disney and Pixar Studios – “Brave.”  I’d heard of the movie for months and months and was excitedly anticipating it.  Every detail made me more and more excited.  A film set in Medieval Scotland?  Already got my attention.  A strong female lead?  Even better!  As concept art became available, and the Celtic motifs grew ever more apparent, I became even more enticed!

I did not go into the film expecting historical accuracy.  This is from Disney and Pixar, for goodness’ sake.  It is incredibly anachronistic in several ways.  Some men may feel it is a bit insulting to their sex.  It stereotypes the Scottish at times, but there are few films that don’t.  As a whole, it’s a bit of a love letter to what modern folks, particularly modern Americans, imagine the Celts to have been: quarrelsome, braggarts, proud, wild haired, perpetually tartan-clad, sensitive to nature, and in tune to the spirit world.  Those are/were only true some of the time, of course, but we have to remember that this is, at heart, a movie aimed at children.  The ridiculousness of the Scottish men is mostly to get the wee ones laughing.  It’s not meant to be a documentary – it’s an entertaining and often moving story.  It’s bardcraft for modern children and the young at heart!  While the story centers on the bond between a mother and daughter, its core is the essence of many familiar Celtic legends.

For me, that’s what really redeems Brave.  There’s been some discussion on film blogs about it being disappointing compared to other Pixar films.  I will say it does depart from the usual theme which seems to have been exploring unseen worlds just out of our sight or somehow parallel to our own.  “Brave” is about an actual group of people, but a people who, unlike most modern folk, already believe in a world parallel to their own.  Some argue “Brave” is more Disney than Pixar, lacking in the comedy and whimsy of previous films.  The magic, it’s been argued, is a crutch of sorts for the storytelling.  But…this is a Scottish-themed fairytale!  “Brave” takes several elements of Celtic storytelling and explores them.  The protagonist, Merida, has the heart and guts of figures such as Scáthach, and Cú Chulainn’s drive to overcome fate.  Her mother, while not portrayed as lusty, is a powerful queen in the tradition of Medb.  In a backstory, four brothers fight over and divide the land to rule.  There are families associated with specific animals and animal transformations.  There is a gathering of the tribes and great feasting!  The threat of war looms large.  Magical creatures inhabit the forests in the form of will-o-the-whisps.  And the witch!

Oh the witch is fun.  She only has a bit of screen time and she doesn’t even get a big song and dance number like other famous animated witches (Ursula from “The Little Mermaid” being a favorite of mine).  The witch of “Brave” is neither good (like Mama Odie, the Voodoo priestess of “The Princess and the Frog”) nor evil (like Maleficent of “Sleeping Beauty”).  Instead she is very much like a Cailleach figure (though smaller); the witch is willing to help but one must be careful what one wishes for.  She is the old, eccentric woman who lives away from society in the forest.  She vanishes (amusingly to attend a wicker man festival), leaving Merida to solve her own problems and learn some important lessons.  In my opinion, the movie doesn’t use magic asa crutch; it portrays its use in many Celtic legends relatively spot on. If the makers of “Brave” got something right, it’s the overall depiction of magic as a neutral force that can be manipulated for good or ill, as well as the overall ambivalence of the spirit world.  Some spirits want to help (in this case, funnily enough, it’s the whisps).  Some actually want help (the prince trapped in the bear).  Others, such as the witch/Cailleach figure…  She’s just having fun and is willing to lend a hand for something in return…but you better be careful how you ask!

If this were an actual Celtic legend, the king, whose leg was eaten by a demonic bear, would have killed the queen (who was turned into a bear thanks to the witch).  He would have then killed the triplets who also became bears.  Merida probably would have killed herself or been carried off by one of her suitors before she had the chance.  Or the queen, in connecting with her primitive, bear mind, would have killed Merida in the forest.  But this is a kids’ film so, despite the threat, it ends lighthearted.  Even though I knew the movie was heading in that direction, I was able to lose myself in the story and feel the emotion.

The mother-daughter theme was also quite engaging to me as I related to it.  I cried when Merida and the queen (as a bear) found themselves playing in the river.  As an adult, I totally got the flashbacks to mama always being there, the frustration related to growing up and still living under mother’s roof, and the realization that growing up shouldn’t mean growing apart.  Living away from my mother now, the film really touched me in that sense.  Part of the power of the film is in celebrating the sacred female – our growing up, our changing roles, our need to be free but also our need to be loved, and our need to pass down and learn wisdom from other women.  Most children won’t grasp that.  Men may even have a difficult time fully appreciating the film for that reason.  Most women, on the other hand, live and experience it.  The film was just as poignant for me as the love story early on in “Up” or the lessons of growing up in the “Toy Story” trilogy.

In conclusion…

I definitly recommend seeing “Brave.”  It’s a fun story that, while not historically accurate, contains several elements of Celtic legends that even novice Celtophiles and Druids will notice and appreciate.  If you can keep the fact that it is a Disney/Pixar film in mind, and let the anachronisms go in favor of a fun story that doesn’t mean any real harm, you should have an excellent time.  The music, while not particularly memorable as other Disney films, works and the scenery is just lovely.  If you have wee ones at home, I think it would be a great film to inspire their curiosity about Celtic cultures and mythology.  

8 thoughts on “Brave: a Wonderful, Must-See For Celtophiles

  1. I loved the movie! I’m not 100% convinced that the wisps were entirely good – they seem more like agents of fate and determinism, heh.

    1. That’s an interesting point. I hesitated writing this post because I almost felt like I should see it again before reviewing. There can be so much to take in! I just really meant they weren’t the usual naughty seeming spirits who are luring people into the bogs to die!

      1. Oh yeah, I really don’t like to review movies unless I’ve seen them several times. I just remember Merida saying something to her mom about “let’s follow the wisps! they’re here to help!” and me thinking “oh yeah, that worked out really well for you the LAST TWO TIMES.”

  2. My daughter and I ADORED this film together! I love how the emotions and dymanic of the mother/ daughter relationship were realistic, well, before the whole being turned into a bear bit. Merida thinks her mother is evil, not because she actually is, but because teenagers get dramatic and think extreme things when their parents try to teach them lessons of duty. The mother really does want the best for her children and for her people. The love she has for Merida is very evident.

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