Published: 02:38 BST, 10 August 2012 | Updated: 13:37 BST, 10 August 2012
When your previous storylines have featured robots who fall in love, a rat who dreams of becoming a chef and an old man whose house is carried up into the sky by thousands of inflatable balloons, then a story about a princess may sound a little, well, passé.
Pixar, the creator of ground-breaking films such as WALL-E, Ratatouille and Up, treads seemingly old animation ground in its latest film, Brave, by featuring as its lead a feisty princess by the name of Merida. But while the premise may seem old-fashioned, it’s a major step for the studio – after 12 films showcasing cars, cowboys and bugs, its 13th, Brave, finally features its first ever female protagonist.
But while Merida proves herself an atypical fairytale princess, Brave isn’t a typical Pixar film either. It’s the studio’s first period piece - set in the 10th Century - and also the first to be based in the British Isles, with the Highlands of Scotland as its backdrop. Mark Andrews, the film’s American director, says: ‘I’ve been a Scotophile for as long as I can remember. This film is basically a love letter to Scotland.’
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New movie: Pixar's latest offering, Brave, has been hailed with its female protagonist
Featuring an almost exclusively Scottish voice cast (aside from Emma Thompson, Julie Walters and John Ratzenberger – Pixar’s renowned ‘lucky charm’ who has voiced a character in every single one of the studio’s full-length films), Brave tackles a subject not normally found in animated films: the at-times testing relationship between mother and daughter.
Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald of Boardwalk Empire and Trainspotting fame), the film’s spirited heroine, is a flame-haired teen and archer extraordinaire who relishes her freedom and baulks when her mother, Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson), arranges for the three first-born sons of the neighbouring clans to vie for her hand in marriage.
A trio of more unsuitable suitors one would be hard pushed to find and in a neat twist on the fairytale convention, Merida vows to fight for her own hand in marriage by easily trumping her hapless suitors in the ensuing archery contest. With mother and daughter at loggerheads, Merida flounces off into the woods and comes across the cottage of an old Witch (Julie Walters) who, at Merida’s request, performs a spell to change the Queen and, hopes Merida, free her to decide her own fate. Unfortunately the ‘change’ in question transforms the Queen into a bear. Merida has just two days to save her mother from being a bear forever.
Magical: Based in Scotland, the film follows lead character Merida, voiced by Scot Kelly McDonald throughout
Bears in the film have an almost mythological significance since we learn that Merida’s father, the boisterous King Fergus (Billy Connolly), has lost his leg to one while protecting his family. So when Merida’s recklessness causes seemingly irreparable damage to her mother, the film forces us to examine how thoughtless acts from both parents and children alike can do untold harm to both sides.
‘Although the movie depicts a mother-daughter relationship, Brave basically looks at the parent-child dynamic and how things we do and say can have a huge effect,’ says Andrews. ‘We’ve all been teenagers and we’ve all rebelled. Teenagers, while feeling things very passionately, don’t always understand the consequences of their actions. Ultimately, it’s a film about looking at yourself and being who you want to be but still considering other people’s feelings.’
Lending her voice: Boardwalk Empire star Kelly Macdonald voices the female protagonist in the animated movie
In a largely female-centric film, it’s ironic that the film’s original director, Brenda Chapman – Pixar’s first woman director – was replaced in the last 18 months of production by Mark Andrews, even though it was Chapman’s own relationship with her wilful young daughter which inspired the story. ‘It’s always awkward when there’s a change of director,’ admits Andrews, ‘but it happens because a story is difficult and to get it to really work, you try new things and change things to move it along.’
Brave certainly does move along at a brisk pace - together with the more touchy-feely elements to the story, the action is unrelenting. Fergus and the three clan leaders Lord Dingwall (Robbie Coltrane), Lord Macintosh (Craig Ferguson) and Lord MacGuffin (Kevin McKidd) could pick a fight in an empty loch, while Merida’s baby triplet brothers Harris, Hubert and Hamish stir up enough mayhem of their own.
Indeed Merida, with her fearlessness and penchant for archery, is not your average animated princess. ‘Merida’s very energetic and adventurous and so unlike me!’ says 36-year-old Kelly Macdonald who voices the young princess. ‘I auditioned for one action thing once and I was just so embarrassed. I had to run up and start pounding this punch bag and I was just really girly and pathetic. I think I even apologised to it afterwards.’
Kelly, who replaced American star Reese Witherspoon to voice the Princess (‘Reese had a great Scottish accent but had to drop out of the film because of scheduling conflicts,’ says Andrews), admits that Merida even has some similarities to her character Diane in Danny Boyle’s iconic 1996 hit Trainspotting. ‘They’re both teenagers and both very rebellious and Trainspotting even came out at around the same time as Pixar’s first film, Toy Story. So it’s a huge privilege to feature in two such iconic Scottish films.’
But if Trainspotting captured the underbelly of modern Scottish life, Brave goes all out to capture the beauty of the country, with medieval Scotland itself becoming one of the most riveting characters in the movie. At times the film’s stunning mist-covered landscapes look so real, it’s hard to remember one is watching a piece of animation. ‘We knew that we really wanted to capture the visual uniqueness of Scotland and that we’d want layers and layers of landscape,’ says Andrews. ‘We wanted the audience to feel the textures and shapes of Scotland and it took almost seven years to get it right because originally the technology just wasn’t there.’
The Pixar team made two trips to Scotland to research the country and its people, ‘We visited the Trossachs, Loch Ness, Dun Carloway, Loch Morar, the Callanish Stones [a stone circle in the Outer Hebrides which is echoed visually in some of the film’s key scenes],’ says Louis Gonzales, one of the film’s artists. ‘It was incredible to soak up the atmosphere and it was the first time I’d even left America. It was so weird going into a real castle – my only castle before was Disneyland!’
The film-makers tried to avoid clichéd depictions of Scotland, although the culinary benefits of haggis and the vexing question of what lies beneath a Scotsman’s kilt still get an airing. ‘But you won’t see the Loch Ness monster feature in the movie,’ says Andrews. ‘I did learn though that every loch has a monster. There are so many myths to Scotland – about the mountains, the rocks; stories about ghosts and witches – that we tried to incorporate them into Brave by giving everything a story.’
Although Merida goes through more than 22 costume changes during the film, ‘her father Fergus was the most complicated character to dress,’ says Claudia Chung, the film’s simulation supervisor. ‘There are 16 layers of cloth on him that all have to move independently of one another and we had to figure out ways to do that.’
Another complication was Merida’s mass of red hair – as wild and untrammelled as the Scottish Highlands. ‘We’ve never done curls before,’ says Claudia, ‘and Merida has masses of them, so we went to the Vidal Sassoon hair salon to see how hair falls and moves and we even developed a new simulation system to capture her wild, crazy hair.’
King Fergus hails from the Clan DunBroch and he has every reason to be proud – the plaid of the fictional clan has now been officially registered as a Scottish tartan. John Lasseter, the film’s executive producer, even wore it to the film’s US premiere in June.
John Ratzenberger, who has appeared in every single one of Pixar’s feature films and is considered the studio’s lucky charm, has a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it role as Gordon the guard. ‘He even does a Scottish accent,’ says Andrews, ‘which is...fair.’
Kevin McKidd (also a graduate of Trainspotting) voices not only the singularly oblong-shaped Lord MacGuffin, but also the part of MacGuffin’s son who speaks a dialect so broad and incomprehensible, no other character in the film can understand him. ‘That came out of the whole rehearsal process,’ says Andrews, ‘It was Kevin’s idea to have MacGuffin’s son speak Doric – a dialect from the northeast coast of Scotland his grandfather used to speak. We loved putting that into the movie. There was never any question about not setting the film in Scotland or about Americanising the accents so that more audiences could grasp it.’
American audiences seem to be coping just fine – the film made over m in its opening weekend in the States and has brought in over 0m to date – despite fears that the normally innovative Pixar, which has been owned by Disney for the past six years, might have strayed too far into traditional Disney territory with its tale of a peppy princess, or that young boys in particular would be loath to watch a film about a girl.
‘But Merida’s about as far removed from a typical princess as you can imagine,’ says Andrews. ‘She’s a brilliant archer, she’s wild and she’s feisty and as a boy, you’re just going to respond to that energy. And in any case, our films’ focus is never that narrow. None of us know a huge amount about being a fish or an ant, but Finding Nemo and A Bug’s Life seemed to do pretty well.’ Those two renowned Pixar films together raked in well over billion at the box office. ‘It’s all about how characters relate to one another and the parent-child relationship is one that everyone in the world can respond to.’
Disney/Pixar’s Brave is released in Scotland today and the rest of the UK on 13th August.