I took my daughter to see Brave this week, and really loved it. As I reflected on what I loved so much, I realized that this was almost the first "princess movie" I had seen with a positive (and living) mother figure. The movie is the first animated movie I've seen with my daughter which is really a mother/daughter movie. There are good father/son movies - Up! is an example of a father-stand-in and boy movie. How to Train Your Dragon and Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs both figure heroes who have strained relationships with fathers who don't understand them which get resolved through the events of the movie. If you look to animal characters, you quickly see a strong father/son relationship in The Lion King and Finding Nemo. But stories that tell about mother/daughter relationships are exceedingly rare in the animated film category. First of all, as has been pointed out, this is Pixar's first animated film with a female star. But there are plenty of Disney princesses, right? However, if you think about it, the average movie princess has a mother who is dead and a step-mother who is evil.. It's the staple of Grimms' fairy tales, and nothing new. But even while the Disney movies change up the Grimm Brothers' tales in many ways, they don't, by and large, introduce princesses with wonderful and living mothers. Here's the list of Disney Princesses (including some that they don't always list):
Princess (Movie) - mother status
Cinderella - Dead, evil step-mother.
Snow White - Dead, evil step-mother.
Aurora (Sleeping Beauty) - Honestly, I can't remember. Probably alive, but asleep the whole time?
Ariel (The Little Mermaid) - Presumed dead. I don't think she's ever mentioned.
Jasmine (Aladdin) - Presumed dead. Again, I think she's not mentioned.
Tiana (The Princess and the Frog) - ALIVE, and a positive figure, but not in most of the movie, as, well, she spends most of her time as a frog.
Pocahontas - Presumed dead.
Belle (Beauty and the Beast) - Dead.
Rapunzel (Tangled) - Mother alive, but Rapunzel abducted and raised by evil witch.
Mulan - Mother alive, but Mulan is away for most of the movie.
As you can see, only one of these princesses was raised by a loving mother who is still alive when the movie's storyline takes place, unless you count Sleeping Beauty. And, again, aren't they all asleep for the most part? And the two movies where we really see the loving and caring mother, the girls are away from their family setting for most of the movie. Tiana in The Princess and the Frog spends most of the time removed from her family setting and wandering as, well, a frog. Mulan bravely goes off to war, and has some strong feminist elements, but her primary relationship even when she's with her family seems to be with her father. My husband loves Mulan, because he sees it as a father/daughter relationship movie, so I don't think I'm exaggerating this.
And while a lot of the fathers are dead, too, in princess movies, we do have strong father/daughter relationships with Ariel, Jasmine, Pocahontas, Belle, and Mulan. Not all of these daughters are removed from their father's care through the whole movie, notably Jasmine and Pocahontas.
For bad examples of mother/daughter relationships, Disney's Tangled really takes the prize. Here we have a daughter raised by a woman/witch who keeps her locked in the tower and apparently just wanted her because the girl's magic hair keeps the witch young. The mother/witch figure is truly disturbing here, because it is portrayed as a twisted version of real affection. Whereas the evil stepmothers in Snow White and Cinderella are just flat-out mean and nasty, the witch in Tangled is not directly so for most of the film.
Brave is so very different in that it tells the story of a girl asserting her independence and developing her own identity, but it does so while having her deal with a loving, caring, and living mother. And, even more unusual, the heart of the story is really about the relationship between Merida, the daughter, and Elinor, her mother. They want different things for Merida's life, and the tension develops from this. They love each other, but they don't understand each other, and they don't know how to communicate and regain the closeness they had when Merida was younger. In one heart-breaking moment, they each, in anger, destroy an object that is precious to the other. Elinor realizes immediately what she has done; Merida takes much of the movie to understand what she needs to do to repair things, literally and figuratively.
We need more of this sort of movie--stories that tell of girls developing their identity and individuality--and we need more with mothers who aren't dead or evil who are a part of these girls lives. So while there's much to critique in this movie, my bottom line is thankfulness. I think this is a story that will stand up as my own daughter reaches those ages where she needs to pull away more from mom. It will be something that I can refer back to as a metaphor for our real lives.