Though Disney’s Pixar Animation Studios has released over two dozen films in the past 30 years, mainstream pop culture tends to only really remember a handful: Toy Story’s heartfelt tale of growing up, Monsters, Inc.’s colorful exploration of childhood fears, Finding Nemo’s delicately rendered underwater world, Up’s emotionally gutting opening minutes. (And though Ratatouille absolutely deserves way more respect than it gets, it’s fine if we never mention any of the Cars sequels ever again.) But one of the studio’s best films is not only somehow always left out of the larger conversation about the Pixar legacy, but far too many people also seem to have forgotten it exists at all.
Brave hit theaters ten years ago, in June of 2012. It was the first Pixar movie to feature a female protagonist, the first to credit a female director and the first to have women credited as screenwriters. It was also the studio’s first—and remains its only—princess film (a familiar staple in the House of Mouse). Brave broke multiple barriers, yet it is rarely remembered for doing so, remaining one of Pixar’s most underrated and underappreciated gems.
Set in medieval Scotland, Brave follows the story of Merida, the firstborn of Clan DunBroch, and a princess who wants more from her life than she’s been told she’s allowed to have. (So far, so familiar, right?) But although Disney has told plenty of stories about princesses, rarely have they looked like this one, a tale that explicitly rejects the fairytale tropes of marriage and happily ever after in favor of empowering its heroine to not just choose her own fate, but thrive on her own. Royal by birth and deeply uninterested in the role traditionally ascribed to her by her gender, Merida is unlike any heroine that had come before her and one which few that came after her can match.
The more popular (and profitable) Frozen is often credited with Disney’s deliberate swing to familial-based love stories, thanks to its focus on Elsa and Anna’s sisterly bond and its prioritization of it over the more traditional “princess tries to find her prince” plot. But this interpretation requires us to ignore that Brave had already done this—and, if you ask me, done this better—over a year before. (Don’t get me wrong, I love Frozen, but Kristoff exists and is technically Anna’s second love interest in the story!)
A girl who loves archery, adventure and her own independence, Merida not only shatters the glass ceiling of what a Disney princess should be and do, she rewrites what a happily ever after can mean in this sort of story. Brave ends with the royal family reunited, the clans at peace and nary a Prince Charming in sight. (In fact, the suitors originally thrust at her are all equally thrilled that they will not be forced to marry a girl they barely know. We love to see it!)
Rather than submit to a betrothal she doesn’t want, Merida literally fights for her right to determine her own future. (“I’ll be shooting for my own hand!” was instantly iconic and does not get enough love in the larger Disney princess pantheon.) Instead of a wedding, our final visual is of Merida and her mother literally riding into the sunset together, determinedly rejecting established tradition and looking toward a future in which both women are finally able to truly be themselves with each other in a way they never have before.
It’s hard to overstate what a revelation this was. Few fairytale heroines—or Disney characters full stop—have much in the way of a relationship with their mothers. This is largely because one of their more uncomfortable (and uncomfortably long-standing) tropes is the idea that motherhood either kills you or turns you evil. Most Disney princesses grow up without a mother, and the few living parents who exist in these stories generally turn out to be villains or so inconsequential that we wouldn’t notice if they weren’t there at all. And though a handful of newer Disney and Pixar films like Encanto and Turning Red have begun to push back against this idea in recent years, it took nearly a decade after Merida’s story had blazed its new path.
Brave’s honest depiction of the complicated dynamics that often exist between mothers and daughters still feels like a breath of fresh air—not just in the relatable ways it portrays the age-old struggle between parents and children who don’t understand one another, but because children’s films so rarely look at this relationship through a female-focused lens. Movies like Finding Nemo, The Incredibles and Toy Story are wonderful, but they are also unabashedly stories about boys told in a way that reflects a distinctly male experience. (One of the lessons of Finding Nemo, after all, is that Martin has to learn to stop being so overprotective and mother hen-ish about his son.) Brave was not just Pixar’s first film to feature a female protagonist, it was the studio’s first effort to tell a story specifically about women.
In Brave, the friction between mother and daughter is about more than a familiar generational misunderstanding regarding what it means to grow up. It’s also grounded in gender roles and societal expectations about who and what women are supposed to be in the world. Merida is a tomboy who prefers racing through the forest on horseback to the conventions of court dress and the vapidity of polite conversation. Her mother Elinor is a quiet, more overtly feminine force who believes in the power of rules and structure, and whose soft-spoken authority frequently carries more weight than the cartoonish bluster of her husband and the other clansmen. Yet, Brave finds that there is enough space for multiple types of womanhood to coexist. (See also: The forest witch with her successful woodcarving side hustle.)
But perhaps the best part about Brave is that its central conflict—a mother who wants her daughter to follow future-securing rules and a daughter who refuses to stifle her independent spirit—doesn’t require either of its characters to lose or be wrong. Each has a clear and understandable perspective, and the film’s larger problem (a transformative curse) is solved only when both make a genuine effort to see past their own preconceived notions of the other’s position. Equally important, their clashes are not categorized as catfights or based in some sort of weird generational competition or jealousy. They’re allowed to be independent and strong, to have firm perspectives that don’t discount the love they feel for one another or that position them as direct antagonists to one another.
Though set in medieval Scotland, Brave’s themes are timeless and universal. Perhaps it’s true that mothers and daughters are uniquely positioned to be monstrous to one another (sometimes literally, in this case), but the bond between them is also strong enough to accept and love one another for who they are—claws, fangs and all.
Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.