Brave: A New Celtic
Fairy Tale
A CultureMap®
by Amy Dorta McIlwaine
Published on 7/10/13

The 2012 animated children’s film Brave, the first fairy tale and first film with a female protagonist produced by Pixar Animation Studios, is the story of Merida, a young Scottish princess who aspires to be an archer. The dark, mythic narrative is in the tradition of the nightmarish bedtime stories of Hans Christian Andersen, Japanese anime and Celtic myth rather than the saccharine yarns animated for the screen by Disney, Pixar’s parent company.

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Brave  (Mark Andrews, Brenda Chapman (dirs.) | film | 2012)
to  Pixar  (American computer animation studio | est. 1986)

Pixar, the pioneering 3D computer animation studio that—partnered with Disney—led audiences into the nursery (Toy Story), beneath the sea (Finding Nemo) and into the future (Wall-E), tells a darker, more haunting story with the big-screen fable Brave. The film’s heroine, Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald), is a young archer in 10th-century Scotland who defies sacred custom and seeks her own path through the dangers and mysteries that lurk in the Highlands. She’s a princess, too, the headstrong daughter of King Fergus (Billy Connolly) and Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson), but unlike Disney characters Snow White, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, she doesn’t need a prince to save her. A skilled, arrow-wielding horsewoman of the epic past, Merida perhaps most closely resembles Fa Mulan within the Pixar-Disney family: The Chinese warrior girl of ancient legend was introduced to modern Western audiences in the 1998 Disney animated film Mulan.

The title Brave, changed from The Bear and the Bow, brings to mind the 1995 best picture Oscar winner Braveheart, also set in medieval Scotland, with Mel Gibson as its long-tressed hero, William Wallace, who fought for his homeland’s independence from England.

Brave  (Mark Andrews, Brenda Chapman (dirs.) | film | 2012)
to  Celtic Folklore

Although those who still speak the Celtic languages are now limited mainly to Ireland, Scotland and Wales, Celtic tribes were widespread in much of Europe by around the third century B.C. Bards kept alive their folklore—rich with gods, spirits, magic and otherworlds—as they repeated stories from generation to generation. Familiar tales include those of the legendary warrior Finn MacCool, who married a woman transformed into a deer by a jealous druid, and Finn’s son, Oisín, who visited the otherworldly paradise of Tír na nÓg.

Celtic history and myth abound with warrior princesses and their struggles for independence; tribal Britain’s red-headed, spear-wielding Boudicca sought to oust the Romans, and Ireland’s pirate queen, Granuaile, challenged Queen Elizabeth I. Brave carries on this tradition with the story of fiery Merida, whose great tangle of red curls confounded her animators. She confronts a “beastly curse” with her weapon of choice, the longbow. The film’s textured landscapes abound with Celtic symbols and those of the Picts, another tribe in northern Scotland; a great stone circle looms in the mist. “We can’t say what happens there,” says producer Katherine Sarafian, “but [it was] inspired by an actual location in Scotland.”

The Secret of Kells  (Tomm Moore, Nora Twomey (dirs.) | film | 2009)
to  Celtic Folklore

The exquisitely animated Secret of Kells mines Irish and Scottish history and legend to tell a tale about the creation of the magnificent Book of Kells, an ancient illuminated manuscript of the New Testament gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. The film endorses the speculation that St. Columba (a.k.a. Colm Cille), a sixth-century Irish monk who settled on the Scottish island Iona, personally worked on the Book of Kells. Unfortunately, any historical evidence for this has been lost, as has proof that Columba transcribed 300 books in his lifetime, assisted by a light shining from his own hand.

The Secret of Kells considers both the rising Christian faith and the pagan ways it eclipsed. Brendan, the film’s hero, asked by a monk inscribing one of the gospels to locate a Celtic god’s magical eye, is assisted in his quest by Aisling, a shape-shifting forest dweller—presumably one of the Tuatha Dé Danaan, ancient fairy inhabitants of Ireland. As Christianity spread, helped along by such illuminated manuscripts, belief in Aisling’s kind faded. Still, it’s not hard to credit the existence of such creatures when perusing the trees, vines and creatures, real and imagined, in the book’s exquisitely illustrated pages.

The Secret of Kells  (Tomm Moore, Nora Twomey (dirs.) | film | 2009)
to  Coraline  (Henry Selick (dir.) | film | 2009)

The hero’s quest is a theme from ancient folklore to modern sagas, from Dante’s Inferno to Harry Potter. In J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Frodo Baggins must destroy the One Ring. C.S. Lewis’s Pevensie children in the Chronicles of Narnia must save Narnia from evil. In The Secret of Kells, 12-year-old Brendan must venture into the enchanted forest beyond the Abbey of Kells’s safe walls to retrieve the eye of the pagan god Crom Cruach. Beyond a hidden door reminiscent of Lewis’s wardrobe portal, an unknown netherworld and fantastical garden entice the 11-year-old heroine of Coraline, who must retrieve the stolen eyes of ghost children.

Ever since Dante, the mythical hero’s guiding friendships have been crucial. Brendan meets his otherworldly challenges with the support of the fairy Aisling, Brother Aidan and Pangur Ban the cat; Coraline with a cat and her friend Wybie. Each film also touches on the power of names: The Other Mother woos Coraline by getting her name right. Aisling tells Brendan, “Don’t speak its name!,” fearing this will summon Crom Cruach, the “Dark One”—just as in the Harry Potter series, the characters gasp in fright when their hero uses “You Know Who’s” real name.

Pixar  (American computer animation studio | est. 1986)
to  The Secret of Kells  (Tomm Moore, Nora Twomey (dirs.) | film | 2009)

Pixar and Disney, who together released such family-friendly CGI (computer-generated imagery) films as Toy Story and Monsters, Inc., have earned eight nominations and six Oscars for best animated feature since the award category debuted in 2001. Among the few non-CGI features that have won the prized statuette are the stop-motion Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit and the hand-drawn Spirited Away.

Traditional animation now tends to come from independent studios outside the U.S., including Ireland’s Cartoon Saloon, which shot The Secret of Kells almost entirely in 2D. The scenes appear to be inked before our very eyes, as dazzling as illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages. Yet the CGI-dominated industry ignored this “pet project,” says codirector Tomm Moore, until its brilliance was recognized by the French-Belgian team who brought to life The Triplets of Belleville (a hand-drawn 2003 Oscar nominee).

Secret received accolades at film festivals and was in the running for 2009’s Academy Award for best animated feature, along with two stop-motion literary adaptations (Coraline and Fantastic Mr. Fox) and Disney’s return to the hand-drawn tradition, The Princess and the Frog. But the winner that year was the only nominated computer-animated film: Pixar’s Up.

Brave  (Mark Andrews, Brenda Chapman (dirs.) | film | 2012)
to  Coraline  (Henry Selick (dir.) | film | 2009)

A gifted archer and daughter of medieval Scottish royalty who insists on determining her own fate, Brave’s Merida adds to a growing list of true heroines in recent films, which includes San of Hayao Miyazaki’s 1997 Princess Mononoke, Lyra Belacqua of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series and Coraline, of the namesake stop-motion film, who is also on a hero’s journey into the magical unknown. These characters are not the damsels in distress of most fairy tales and many Disney films.

In Neil Gaiman’s 2002 novel Coraline, the heroine completes a paranormal task using “a stone with a hole in it.” The screenwriter and director of the film version, Henry Selick, made this “seeing stone” triangular, its shape echoing the swirling triskelion, an ancient symbol used by the Celts to suggest aspects of nature, such as earth, water and sea, or the three realms: mortal, celestial and otherworldly. Coraline’s tagline, “Be careful what you wish for” (a warning about the otherworld she enters), would be good advice for Merida when she faces a wish-granting wise woman. And Coraline’s story resonates with Brave’s tagline: “Change your fate.”

Coraline  (Henry Selick (dir.) | film | 2009)
to  Spirited Away  (Hayao Miyazaki (dir.) | film | 2001)

In the fantasy Coraline, the titular heroine clashes with her mother, journeys to a demonic alternate reality and rescues her parents from a witch’s house. Replace the details and you have the sleeper hit Spirited Away, written and directed by anime king Hayao Miyazaki, which follows 10-year-old Chihiro into the spirit world of the witch Yubaba. Chihiro’s grandfather, transformed in the spirit world into a spider, praises her courage. But because 11-year-old Coraline must confront the progressively more spider-like Other Mother—an increasingly menacing doppelgänger of her real mother—and rarely flinches from the strange and dangerous, she comes off as the braver of the two.

Each girl faces trouble and gets no assistance from hapless adults, each has a male sidekick, and each makes a deal with the local witch to win freedom for herself and her parents. In both stories, the catalyst for the otherworldly encounter is moving from one house to another (not to be confused with the “moving house” in Miyazaki’s 2004 Oscar-nominated Howl’s Moving Castle). Finally, in typical mythological fashion, each girl must assert her true name—Coraline continually corrects those who call her Caroline, and Chihiro resists being renamed Sen—to retain her identity.

Spirited Away  (Hayao Miyazaki (dir.) | film | 2001)
to  Brave  (Mark Andrews, Brenda Chapman (dirs.) | film | 2012)

The appointment of Brenda Chapman as Brave’s director made her the first female in that job at Pixar—until she was replaced, due to “creative differences,” by Mark Andrews (the film credits both). Still, the Brave story was written by two women, Chapman (who helped develop the stories for Cars and Beauty and the Beast) and Irene Mecchi (who worked on The Lion King and The Hunchback of Notre Dame). Despite their history of creating strong female characters (Beauty’s Belle and Hunchback’s Esmeralda show plenty of spunk), the writers made their first true heroine in Merida: She knows her mind, rides her own trusty steed and doesn’t need a prince to rescue her—instead she does the rescuing.

Heroines who take charge and wield weapons as they struggle with magic and forces of nature are old hat for Spirited Away writer-director Hayao Miyazaki, creator of Princess Mononoke (1997) and Howl’s Moving Castle (2004).Chihiro, Spirited’s protagonist, may be a counterpart to Lewis Carroll’s Alice or L. Frank Baum’s Dorothy; Brave’s Merida more closely echoes the heroine of Princess Mononoke. Miyazaki’s connection to Pixar is stronger than mere association, however: Pixar’s creative director oversaw the English-language version of Spirited Away.

Brave  (Mark Andrews, Brenda Chapman (dirs.) | film | 2012)
to  Hans Christian Andersen  (1805–1875 | Danish writer)

Brenda Chapman, creator of the Brave story and characters, reportedly was inspired by her love for the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen. Although called bedtime stories, these tales can be extraordinarily nightmarish: Children endure murder attempts (“Snow White”), neglect and abuse (“Cinderella”), torture (“The Red Shoes”), abandonment and, nearly, cannibalization (“Hansel and Gretel”). These twisted 19th-century fables have also been called cautionary stories and even social critiques; some say they give voice to the disenfranchised—the very young, very old and very poor—and celebrate the innocent (though some are not allowed to survive). In Andersen’s “Snow Queen” Gerda’s power to save her friend Kay derives from her youthful innocence, compassion and love, which live in her heart and prove more powerful than the sorcery that permeates her world.

Amid the magical Scottish wilderness, Brave’s Merida also confronts sorcery—from animal curses to ethereal blue “wisps”—as she completes her quest. Pixar warned moviegoers to anticipate a darker, more intense experience than they had come to expect, although gloomy plots and biting satire are no strangers to children’s fiction writers, old and new (see Philip Pullman, Lemony Snicket, J.K. Rowling).

Hans Christian Andersen  (1805–1875 | Danish writer)
to  Spirited Away  (Hayao Miyazaki (dir.) | film | 2001)

Spirited Away, winner of the 2002 Oscar for best animated film, met with nearly universal acclaim. Audiences could identify with ordinary young Chihiro, who—having lost both her family and her childhood identity—must take up some very adult tasks on her heroine’s journey. While his anime style is fantastical to behold, director Hayao Miyazaki creates something deeper than just a magical adventure by drawing characters and lessons from his own life. A friend’s 10-year-old daughter inspired him to make Spirited Away.

Hans Christian Andersen’s life and travels also contributed to the sophisticated storytelling and observations that enhance his deceptively simple fables. His stories are imbued with humor, faith and, most memorably, heart-wrenching sadness. Little girls meet difficult endings—look no further than “The Little Mermaid” (betrayal), “The Wild Swans” (sacrifice) and “The Little Match Girl” (death)—and there was something Dickensian about Andersen himself. The poor, gawky, serious son of a cobbler, he lost his father at age 11, was educated at the whims of benefactors and endured humiliation at school and in love. Andersen’s own story had a fairy-tale ending, however—he became a rich, world-famous author who counted celebrities and royalty among his friends.