At first glance, of course, it’s a warrior-girl story, meant to appeal to both boys and girls in an example of butt-kicking girl power. As expected, we have the traditional fairytale structure. However, within, there are some unusual choices that sap power from the heroine.
She begins as that most classic of fairytale heroines or heroes: the adolescent who doesn’t fit in and longs to escape the humdrum world of the home. She has an unusual talent, archery, not permitted to her and she’s tired of being a traditional princess. She discovers a path open to her, using her special talents– “I’m fighting for my own hand” is a delightful moment of modern girlpower in the ancient world.
However, from the moment she runs away, meets an ancient witch and requests a spell to “change her mother” thngs take an odd turn. First, the spell costs her nothing—for her necklace, trapping of the world she doesn’t want, she earns not only the spell but also an entire house ful of carvings. Second, she the heroic quest isn’t Merida’s but her mother’s. The mother indeed transforms…into a bear! From there, Merida’s entire quest is undoing the spell she caused. But Merida doesn’t grow or change; only Queen Elinor does. From the proper lady setting a breakfast table even as a bear and stopping a battle with her stately presence and self-possession, she turns into an animal eating raw fish in the stream and romping with her daughter. She’s the one to battle the evil bear Mordu, enemy of her family; she’s the one to learn a lesson and caution Merida she should abandon her arranged marriage. Merida makes a stab at silencing a room with her queenly presence, but apart from that, she’s like a chastened child trying to wipe up a mess she’s made, not an independent heroine. Even with her mother mute, Merida doesn’t voice her anxieties about getting married, instead concentrating on undoing her rash actions. The heroine’s journey is about growing up and learning the lessons of life and death needed to be an adult. Merida gains the maturity to admit she’s made a mistake and fight (quite literally) to fix it, defending her mother with a spear. But she likely had both the determination and the humility from the start, as from the instant she makes her mistake, she’s cleverly, apologetically, fiercely working to undo it. She doesn’t really learn the wisdom of peace or other knowledge she didn’t already possess. And that’s problematic.
The theme here may be “Don’t worry kids, your parents are really wrong and you’re really right.” But if it’s brave to do something scary,something far outside one’s comfort zone, then it’s the queen who’s brave, not really Merida.