Inciting Event: The Scottish princess Merida’s mother Eleanor announces that the clans are all bringing their oldest sons as suitors for Merida’s hand. Merida firmly rejects this Call to Adventure. She has zero interest in being married or having her life planned out for her by her mother.

First Plot Point: The clans arrive. After learning that the rules of the competition indicate that the firstborn of each clan may compete for the princess’s hand, Merida competes in the archery competition on her own behalf and wins. She infuriates her mother, who drags her to her room and insists she’s endangered the peace of the kingdom. Merida lashes out and slices the tapestry Eleanor made, which depicts their family.

First Pinch Point: And… forgive me Pixar lovers (of which, I am generally one), but this is where this movie starts to go really wrong. Up to this point, this movie has been constructed as the story of a princess in a conflict over whether or not she will submit to a forced marriage. Her relationship with her mother has been the important catalyst in that conflict, but as the Inciting Event and First Plot Point prove, that relationship has not been set up as the heart of this story

Here, at the First Pinch Point, Merida runs away, encounters a (very poorly foreshadowed) witch, and gets her to provide a spell to “change” her mother. Knowing where the movie and its conflict head from here, this would have been a much better First Plot Point—one that was aligned with what the story was actually about, rather than what the First Act sets it up to be about.

As it stands, this all-important development not only comes very late and relatively out of the blue, it also relegates the charming witch character to a mere plot device.

Midpoint: Merida feeds the spell to her mother—and it turns her into a bear.

On the positive side: this is a huge turning point in the plot.

On the negative side: where to start?

First of all, I have problems with the whole bear symbolism. Other than an incidental tie-in to the “legend of the lost kingdom” and the evil bear Mordu that the father is obsessed with killing, the mother’s turning into a bear brings no added dimension or insight into the plot or the theme (more on the murky themes in a minute).

Second, we have no great Moment of Truth here. Because the actual conflict began so late at the First Pinch Point, Merida’s character arc is drastically delayed. She can’t have her Moment of Truth revelation yet, because the story hasn’t moved her that far along.

Third, I have major issues with how blithely the movie treats the mother’s actions in the First Act. Although both Merida and Eleanor undergo positive change arcs by the movie’s end (and although Eleanor definitely suffers more than Merida), the movie places the burden of blame on Merida from the very beginning. She never intended to turn her mother into a bear; she only wanted her mother to change. From beginning to end, Merida is punished for that not-so-unreasonable desire as much as for her misguided (but guileless) actions.

In the end, the lesson Merida learns is that her mother was “always there for me” and “never gave up on me.” But this is never shown in the First Act. The movie forces viewers to take the mother’s parental love for granted even in the face of her drastically questionable behavior toward her daughter. To really reinforce the importance of Merida’s journey, the mother’s reliability and loyalty should have been emphasized just as strongly as her faults in the beginning.

Instead, it is Merida’s teenage spirits, entirely understandable hesitation over betrothal to a total stranger, and resentment of her mother’s inability to see her needs that are punished as “pride” and selfishness. (Granted, Merida certainly has things to learn, but I would argue the story was wrong in wanting to make her bear the greater burden of blame.)

This isn’t just the result of poor plotting in the first half. The movie’s incredibly murky themes are all over the place. They include all of the following:

  • Forced marriages shouldn’t be questioned.
  • Mothers will always be there (even when they’re bad listeners).
  • Wanting your mother to change is bad.
  • Legends are lessons.
  • You carry the ability to change your fate within you.
  • One selfish act can turn the fate of a whole kingdom.

Varied themes are never a bad thing as long as they all tie together into a singular message. The biggest problem here is that the Truths Merida and Eleanor individually learn over the course of the story have nothing to do with each other:

Merida learns not to be selfish and that family bonds shouldn’t be broken.

Eleanor learns that sometimes it’s okay to break tradition and follow your heart.

And neither of them have anything to do with the bear symbolism—except to tie back into the ultimately extraneous legend of Mordu and the lost kingdom.

Second Pinch Point: While Merida and her mother are out in the woods, trying to figure out what to do before the curse becomes permanent at the second sunrise, they are attacked by the evil bear Mordu—and Merida realizes that in order to break the curse, she needs to return home and mend the tapestry she sliced with her sword.

She experiences her Moment of Truth shortly before this while watching her mother learn to fish and survive in the wild. It’s a nicely understated glimmer of understanding between mother and daughter—but it comes regrettably late in the story.

Third Plot Point: Back home in the castle, Eleanor is briefly overtaken by her bear nature. She attacks Merida and her husband and flees. Merida’s father believes the bear killed Eleanor and goes after her to kill her—locking Merida in behind him.

Climax: The Climax is all about mother and daughter protecting each other. Merida protects Eleanor from her father, and Eleanor protects Merida when Mordu attacks. On the surface, this seems a nice way of “showing” how the characters have changed. But since there was never any doubt that both women would protect each other against lethal force despite their differences, it really doesn’t do much to prove the specific changes that have happened in their character arcs.

Climactic Moment: At sunrise, Merida repents of her pride and Eleanor turns back into her human form.

Resolution: The tribes return—having decided all their children should have the right to pick their own mates. Merida declares that “fate is within us”—which, frankly, harks back to the events of the movie in only the vaguest of ways.

Notes: Am I being hard on this movie? Absolutely. The pieces here are so much better than the whole that it’s a shame the mistimed plot and murky themes weren’t so much tighter. If nothing else, it goes to show the importance of resonance and symmetry in our plot and theme choices.

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