An Open Access Review Journal Encouraging Critical Engagement with the Continuing Process of Inventing the Middle Ages

August 30, 2013

Andrews, Chapman, and Purcell, dirs.: Brave

Brave.  Dir. Mark Andrews, Brenda Chapman, and Steve Purcell.  Disney-Pixar, 2012.  DVD.  93 mins.

Reviewed by Leila K. Norako (

Brave — Pixar’s first period film — garnered wide acclaim upon its release in June, 2012. It won both an Academy Award and a BAFTA award for best animated film and was nominated for ten Annie awards (it won for production design and animated effects). Set in medieval Scotland, it tells the story of a headstrong princess, Merida, and her mother, Queen Elinor, and how the two find common ground through a difficult (and supernatural) adventure. Brenda Chapman, one of Pixar’s directors, pitched the initial idea for the story, having been inspired by her “feisty” and “opinionated” six-year-old daughter [1]. The goal, however, was to create a folktale that would appeal to both girls and boys (hence the ambiguous title [2]). And, given the shared Scottish heritage of the co-directors (Chapman and Mark Andrews), the team decided to set their folktale in that land’s distant and mythical past.

The film has been praised for its stunning animation, its strong, female heroine, and its portrayal of a mother and daughter’s relationship. Brave’s numerous and overlapping anachronisms, however, have been a regular topic of discussion among medievalists [3]. They are certainly abundant, but the creators clearly sought to present a fantasy version of medieval Scotland rooted in our contemporary imagination rather than an historically faithful portrait. Moreover, there remains something decidedly medieval about the way in which these anachronisms and mismatched historical details overlap to form strange, but ultimately purposeful, collages. In this way, Brave introduces medieval narrative methodologies to its audience through its various anachronisms and temporal overlaps.

The first point of entanglement is the dating of the story. While many reviews of the film cite the 10th century, the producer Katherine Sarafian was forthright about her approach to the temporal setting of Brave. In a promotional video on Pixar’s website [4], she explains that the team chose to set the story between the 10th and the 12th centuries. This is, to be sure, a vast time period that includes several major shifts and events in Scottish history and culture. At the same time, this decision to inhabit vaguely a three-century time period — while also injecting an array of more modern details — allows for historical ambiguity and many of the overlaps that occur in the film.

This approach is made clear in the introduction of the rival clans.  While they do arrive in ships that bear a distinct resemblance to the birlinns (i.e., medieval Scottish galleys), they all wear tartans, as does Merida’s father, King Fergus. The earliest extant Scottish tartan, known as the Falkirk tartan, dates to the third century, but the tartan we think of today — the one featured so prominently in Brave, with its vertical and horizontal lines — did not become popular until the 16th century. At the same time, one of the arriving clan leaders bedecks himself in woad paint, which harkens back to the legendary adornments of the Picts more than to Scottish culture in the 10th-12th centuries. What is more, we see the men briefly engage in competitive events known as the Highland Games, and while there are historical indications that tests of strength were in place in early medieval Scotland, these particular events (the caber toss, the hammer throw, the weight throw, etc.) were largely a Victorian invention.  While these examples are anachronistic, they are ones that would be readily familiar to most modern audience members. These details — the tartan, the Games, the woad paint — are probably the most easy demarcations of ancient Scottish “identity” in modern America — perpetuated by a variety of means, including Scottish Games and festivals and films like Braveheart (1995) and King Arthur (2004). As such, their inclusion in Brave allows the audience an easy and familiar cultural association, while also allowing the film to participate in a kind of overlapping quite common in modern medievalism.

Another example of temporal overlap occurs after the clans are assembled. The leaders bring their sons forward and boast of their achievements in order to make the young men seem the most desirable to Merida and her parents. The chieftains of the Macintosh and MacGuffin clans describe their sons defeating Viking invaders, but the Viking invasions took place in the 8th and 9th centuries, long before the earliest part of the aforementioned date range for the setting of Brave. Moreover, Lord Dingwall, the third chieftain, states that his son was victorious against ten thousand Romans, which is even more impossible given that the Romans left Scotland in the fifth century. Some writers have used these details to attack the film’s lack of accuracy, but I think it is equally possible to see these references as a reflection on the characters who are giving voice to them. Taken in context, they are merely a part of overblown speeches designed to make the boys sound far more mature and accomplished than they actually are. It is hyperbole at its most obvious, something at which the fathers excel from beginning to end of the film.

While these are anachronisms of the visible but superficial variety, Merida’s desire to choose her own destiny and her refusal to choose a betrothed are perhaps the most significant and sustained anachronisms in the film. As many have already observed, her obstinacy stands in stark contrast to the ways in which young, medieval noblewomen would have perceived the same situation. In this sense, her mother’s outrage is rather accurate and on point while Merida’s reaction to her fate is more modern than medieval. In fairness, however, it would have been difficult to encourage a modern audience — children especially — to identify with medieval social behaviors, especially those that encouraged and accepted arranged marriages out of a sense of service to one’s realm. In fact, one could even say that reproducing those social behaviors would have laid an entirely different set of problems at Pixar’s door, because instead of being accused of anachronism, they could easily have found themselves accused of encouraging subservience in their female audience. The shift, then, is certainly forgivable because this story, even as it inhabits a fantasized medieval landscape, is ultimately intended to be a modern one.

Compellingly, Merida is willing to accept one of the suitors later on in the film. She marches resolutely into the great hall where all of the clansmen are arguing and commands the room almost as magnificently as her mother did earlier in the film. In an attempt to buy her mother (who has been turned into a bear) time to escape, she begins to speak to the men and tell them that she has had a change of heart, and, rather remarkably, she comes very close to choosing one of the boys in an attempt to right the wrongs she’s committed. Her mother, in an equally remarkable moment, motions for her to stop before she does so, and in the process lets her know that she too has had a change of heart. In this way, Merida seems to come around to an understanding of her obligations not all that removed from that of a medieval noblewoman, while her mother ultimately adopts the strikingly modern approach to her daughter’s situation.

While these anachronisms certainly remove the film from the realm of historical accuracy, they also allow the film to operate in a way convergent with that of medieval romance. The Alliterative Morte Arthur, for example, readily cherry-picks from history and legend to create an elaborate, multi-temporal realm, and it does so in order to weave a complex story for a contemporary, fourteenth/fifteenth-century audience.  For example, the romance has long been noted for its strikingly faithful depiction of fourteenth-century warfare, and yet the story it tells is one that predates even the reign of Charlemagne. In a similar way, Brave interweaves historical references and anachronisms in order to create a vibrant fantasy realm — a backdrop against which it can set a story that appeals to its contemporary audience.  

Brave also shares with medieval romance a focus on the need for a restored and strong family unit. Like romances such as Sir Isumbras and Sir Eglamour of Artois, Brave focuses squarely on the fragility of the family and on its dissolution, brought about in this case by Merida’s desire to avoid marriage and symbolized by her tearing of the family tapestry lovingly woven by her mother (the gash she leaves cuts the mother off from the rest of her family members). This separation is literalized when Merida seeks out the help of a woodland witch, whose potion transforms her mother into a bear, the one beast her father loathes above all others. Merida and her mother have to flee the castle and try to find a remedy for the curse, and they are initially faced with a cryptic message from the witch. The spell that turned Elinor into a bear will become permanent after the second sunrise unless Merida remembers the following words: “Fate be changed. Look inside. Mend the bond torn by pride.” This remedy requires them not only to strengthen their relationship and come to an understanding of one another, but also requires Merida to literally and figuratively stitch the family tapestry back together. This blending of the literal and the figurative is a vital component of many of the romances I listed previously, and while it’s unlikely that the producers had the structure of these romances — or any medieval romance — specifically in mind as they created Brave, I offer that these comparisons reveal a common impulse between modern and medieval narrative: to repurpose the past in ways that suit present narrative desires and the stories we want and need to hear. What is more, Brave could very well be a wonderful way to introduce students to the narrative force and structure of medieval romance for these very reasons.

This is not to say, however, that Brave mimics the narrative structures of medieval romance completely. One way in which it departs from (or even rewrites) the medieval romance tradition, in fact, lies in its focus on a mother and a daughter. Stories of fathers and daughters and mothers and sons abound in medieval literature, but few narratives survive from the Middle Ages that focus on the positive relationships between mothers and daughters. In fact, when mothers appear they often are the greatest enemies of their daughters or, more frequently, daughters-in-laws, as seen in the Constance tradition. In this sense, Brave’s version of medieval romance is a decidedly modern one.

Why then choose to set this film in the Middle Ages, when its characters and the themes it emphasizes are so decidedly modern? The answer lies, in part, in the creative spirit of the team at Pixar, who have expressed in a variety of interviews their fascination with medieval Scotland and its folklore. The other part, perhaps, lies in the moralizing weight of the folktale tradition and the quasi-historical past. Setting Brave in distant, medieval Scotland, allows for a sense of constructed authority. Just as Merida ultimately sees herself and her own circumstances as virtually identical to that of Mor’du, so too are audiences — children most of all — invited to consider their own relationships with their parents in light of the (fictively ancient) story they are seeing on the screen. Like so many films before it, Brave positions its narrative in the “once upon a time” landscape of a fantasized Middle Ages, and for this reason the criticism the film has received for its anachronisms seems a bit puzzling at first. The reason, perhaps, lies in the fact that the film straddles the real and the fantastical more so than others in the genre. Unlike Sleeping Beauty or the Shrek films (which also position themselves in a distant, “medieval” past), Brave specifically identifies its characters not only as medieval but as Scottish, and as such the film pulls towards the historical even as it remains a folktale for a modern audience.  Brave ultimately interweaves a wide variety of historical and legendary references into its fantasy landscape. In so doing, it reminds us of the fluid boundary between history and fantasy, how easily the two can elide one another for the sake of good story telling.

Leila K. Norako
Notre Dame de Namur University