A little boy is sitting in a fishing boat with an old man and a middle-aged man, both of whom have heavy facial hair and are wearing newsie caps (the three of them could be a grandfather, father, and son). They are rowing across the water late at night.
The men present the little boy with a present, a newsie cap just like theirs. They set it on his head, and the oldest man pushes the cap back the way he wears it, and the middle-aged man pushes it forward like his wears it.
The moon rises behind the boat, massive and extremely close. The old man puts down anchor, and the middle-aged man pulls out a huge ladder. He sets the ladder so it is pointing to the moon and indicates that the little boy should climb. The middle-aged man gives the boy the anchor, which he ties around his waist and then climbs the ladder. When he gets close to the moon, the moon’s gravity causes him to float into the air and land on the moon’s surface.
The moon is covered with glowing yellow stars. The little boy touches one of the stars and it pulses with light. As he watches, another yellow star crash-lands on the moon.
Once the little boy has secured the boat to the moon with the anchor, the two older men join him on the moon’s surface. They open a janitorial closet and pull out a bucket of brooms and mops. They begin to sweep up all the stars, each instructing the boy on their individual sweeping techniques.
As they are sweeping, a massive star crashes into the moon. The men don’t know how to clean it up, since they can’t even move it. The little boy turns his cap backwards, climbs up on the star, and taps it with a hammer, causing the giant star to break into hundreds of little stars.
The men and the boy sweep all the stars to one side of the moon, the boy using his own raking technique, and return to their boat. As they sail back home you can see they have swept the stars in such a way that the full moon now appears to be a crescent moon (the glowing stars illuminate a crescent shape along one side of the moon).
The film begins with the young princess Merida (Kelly Macdonald) playing hide-and-seek with her mother, Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson). Her father, King Fergus (Billy Connolly), wishes her happy birthday and gives her a bow and arrows. Elinor objects, but Merida starts practicing immediately. When she misses the target and chases her arrow into the woods, she sees a floating blue light, a “will o’ the wisp.” She is excited, and her mother tells her that wisps are said to “lead you to your fate.”
Suddenly, a huge black bear comes running out of the woods to menace Elinor and Merida. Fergus fights off the bear so his wife and daughter can escape.
Merida’s voice talks about fate and destiny, saying “Fate is the one thing we search for or fight to change.”
Cut to the present day, where Merida has grown to adolescence and now has three little brothers, triplets. Her father survived the attack from the bear, but lost his leg. He gets around fine on a peg leg but swears he will find and kill the one-eyed bear someday.
Merida is unhappy because her mother is always trying to teach her how to be a proper princess with music and history and embroidery lessons. Whenever possible, Merida takes off on her horse to shoot targets in the woods and climb mountains.
When Merida returns from one such adventure, her father is telling the story of the bear attack again. Mid-story, a pile of letters arrive for Queen Elinor. She says that the Scottish lords have responded to her invitation, and are bringing their sons to compete for Merida’s hand in marriage, as is tradition. Merida is extremely upset to hear this.
Elinor tries to explain to Merida the importance of duty and selflessness. She tells Merida the legend of a king who left his kingdom to his four sons. The eldest son wanted to go his own way, he wanted to rule over the others, and he thrust the kingdom into chaos, bloodshed, and ruin. Merida says it’s just an old story, but Elinor says that legends have truths that are meant to teach us.
Merida runs off to the stables, and Elinor works on embroidering a tapestry of their family. Elinor explains to Fergus what she wishes she could explain to Merida, while Merida tells her horse everything she wishes she could tell her mother. Basically, Merida doesn’t feel ready to get married and Elinor believes that Merida needs to grow up. They both wish the other would just listen.
The lords arrive with their sons and their retinues, and Elinor trusses Merida in a horribly uncomfortable dress. The lords present their sons: Lord Macintosh’s son is the most handsome, but obviously vain and spoiled. Lord MacGuffin’s son is extremely strong, but chubby and shy with such a thick Scottish accent that nobody can understand him. Lord Dingwall’s son is completely awkward and inept and kind of stupid.
Almost immediately, a fight breaks out among the lords and Fergus has to break it up. The triplets sneak up and bang Lord Macintosh on the toe, so the fighting starts all over again. This time Queen Elinor silences everyone by walking through the crowd. She reminds everyone that only the firstborn from each royal family can compete for the princess’ hand. This gives Merida an idea, so when Queen Elinor asks Merida what the competition should be, Merida says, “Archery!”
A huge fair commences and the archery targets are arranged. Young MacGuffin shoots first, and hits the edge of the target. Young Mcintosh is next, and he hits right of center and throws a tantrum. Young Dingwall can barely hold the bow, but when King Fergus yells “Get on with it!” he startles Young Dingwall into accidentally shooting a bull’s-eye.
Before Young Dingwall can be declared winner, Merida runs onto the course. She says, “As firstborn of the Dunbraugh clan I will also be competing for my own hand!” She runs past all three targets, shooting dead center on each, splitting Dingwall’s arrow in half.
Queen Elinor is furious. She says, “You embarrassed the lords. You don’t know what you’ve done.” Merida says, “I’ll never be a perfect princess. I’ll never be like you!” She slashes the tapestry her mother has been working on, separating the figure of her mother from the rest of the family. Elinor is so upset that she throws Merida’s bow in the fire, and Merida rides off into the woods on her horse. Elinor immediately regrets her anger and pulls the bow out of the fire before it burns.
Merida rides through a Stonehenge circle and sees another blue will o' the wisp. She follows it to a tiny cottage where an old woman is making wooden carvings of bears. Merida sees that the woman’s broom is sweeping by itself and that her pet crow can talk, and she knows the old lady is a witch. She wants the witch to give her a spell, but the witch refuses saying “I’m not a witch anymore - too many unsatisfied customers. I’m just a woodcarver now.” Merida agrees to buy all the old woman’s carvings in exchange for the medallion Merida wears around her neck, but she also wants a spell. Merida says, “I want a spell that will change my mom. That will change my fate.”
The witch brews up a potion in her cauldron. She says, “The last time I did this was for a prince who wanted the strength of ten men. He gave me this.” She shows Merida a coin bearing the symbol of two crossed axes. The witch turns the potion into a jam tart. She gives the tart to Merida, and she’s about to tell Merida something else about the spell, but Merida has passed the boundary of the cottage so she can’t see the witch anymore.
When Merida arrives at the castle, her mom has been worried sick. Merida gives her the tart and her mom takes a bite, leaving the rest on the kitchen counter. Immediately, Elinor starts to feel sick and Merida carries her up to bed. Elinor falls off the bed and turns into a bear.
Merida screams and Elinor starts freaking out and tearing up the room. Fergus hears the commotion and heads upstairs, followed by the lords. Merida knows her father hates bears, so she has to sneak her mother out of the castle before Fergus accidentally kills her. She enlists the triplets to distract the lords and lead them in the opposite direction. As a reward, she tells the triplets they can have her dessert for a year, and the triplets head down to the kitchen where the remainder of the enchanted tart is waiting.
Merida and her mother head out to the forest. They locate the witch’s hut again, but it’s empty. A Rube Goldberg setup turns an empty cauldron into an answering machine of sorts, with the witch directing "the red-haired girl" to drop one of several potions into the cauldron, prompting the witch to say, “I forgot to tell you something about the spell: on the second sunrise, its effects become permanent unless you can remember these words: Fate be changed, look inside. Mend the bond torn by pride.”
The cottage disappears again, and it starts to rain. Merida builds a shelter for her mother. She says, “Don’t worry mom, we’ll sort it out tomorrow,” but her mother is really depressed and just turns to face the wall. Merida remembers how when she was little, she was afraid of thunder and rain and her mother would hold her and comfort her by singing to her and saying, “I’ll always be here for you.”
In the morning Merida shows her mom how to fish and they both fall in the water and laugh together. But as the morning wears on, Elinor starts to become less human and more like a bear. She has to work hard to remember who she really is.
Merida and Elinor see the wisps again and follow them. The wisps lead them to a broken-down castle that bears the symbol of the crossed axes. Inside the castle Merida sees four stone statues, the four brothers from the story her mother told her. There are bones all over the floor, and Merida remembers what the witch said about the prince who wanted the strength of ten men. She realizes that the one-eyed bear is actually the prince, transformed.
The castle is the one-eyed bear’s lair, and when it sees Merida it chases after her. Elinor helps Merida escape, and they head back to the castle. Merida thinks that the lines from the witch’s spell “mend the bond torn by pride” refer to the tapestry she slashed. She thinks if she can sew the tapestry together again the spell will be broken.
Back at Merida’s castle, the lords are starting to fight again. They want to know which lordling Merida will marry. Merida distracts them so her mother can sneak upstairs to the tapestry room. She walks through the fray just like her mother did and everyone falls silent. She tells the lords the story of the ancient kingdom, using the same words her mother used. Elinor hears and is happy and proud that Merida was listening, and that she can reason with the lords so well.
Merida tells the lords the kingdom is only strong when they are all united, and she reminds them how they fought against invaders together and saved each other’s lives. She says, “Yours was an alliance forged in bravery and friendship and it lives to this day. I’ve been selfish. I tore a rift.” Merida is about to say that she will choose a husband, but her mother motions for her to stop. Instead, Merida asks the lords if they will agree that from now on, their children can follow their hearts and find love in their own time. The lord’s sons all want this as well, so the lords agree.
Elinor and Merida sneak upstairs and are about to mend the tapestry when Elinor begins to lose her mind and become bear-like again. Meanwhile, Fergus has run up to his wife’s room to tell her the good news about Merida, and he sees a huge mess and Elinor’s torn dress on the floor. He thinks Elinor has been attacked by a bear, and he runs into the tapestry room just in time to see Elinor accidentally claw Merida’s arm. Fergus attacks Elinor. Merida tries to explain the bear is really Elinor, but Fergus won’t listen. He locks Merida in the room and chases after Elinor with the rest of the lords in pursuit.
Merida yells for the triplets, and three little bear cubs appear. The triplet cubs help Merida break out of the room and she grabs the tapestry and chases after Elinor and Fergus. As Merida rides through the woods, she quickly sews the tapestry together again.
Fergus and the lords have trapped Elinor in the Stonehenge circle. Before Fergus can kill Elinor, Merida jumps between them. Just then, the one-eyed bear leaps into the fray. It’s about to kill Merida when Elinor breaks free and jumps on its back. They engage in a vicious battle. Elinor is hurt, but she knocks the one-eyed bear repeatedly into one of the stone pillars until the pillar cracks and falls on top of him. When the one-eyed bear is crushed, the spirit of the prince is released and he nods at Elinor to thank her.
The sun is rising for the second time, and Merida throws the tapestry over her mother but it doesn’t work. Elinor is still a bear, and she’s barely human anymore. Merida apologizes to her mother for the spell and says, “You were always there for me, you never gave up on me and I want you back. I love you.” She hugs her mom.
As the sunrise washes over them, Elinor turns human again and she hugs Merida and kisses her face. Merida is surprised by her mom’s effusiveness and says, “You’ve changed!” Elinor says, “We both have.” Fergus kisses his wife, and the three triplets run over, naked and human again.
Cut to Elinor, Merida, and Fergus bidding the lords farewell. All the clans are happy and united again. Merida’s voice says, “Some say fate is beyond our command, but I know better. Our destiny is within us. You just have to be brave enough to see it.” She rides off through the forest with her mom.
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