Brave, indeed. Pixar's upcoming feature (opening June 22) proves that the animation powerhouse is at the top of its game once more, introducing its first period piece as well as its first female protagonist. And judging by the first half-hour that I viewed up north in Emeryville last week, the medieval Scottish adventure is darker and more tactile than previous Pixar features. While on the surface Brave is a fairy tale in the vein of Hans Christian Andersen or the Brothers Grimm, it is at heart a mother/daughter story. Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald), the wild and fiery teenage princess, defies the wishes of her well-intentioned mother, Queen Elinor (voiced by Emma Thompson), to select a suitor among the sons of the three lords of the kingdom by holding an archery competition.
As you've probably seen in the trailer, Merida shows off her considerable archery skills to thwart tradition. Merida then selfishly gets in over her head and threatens the safety of the kingdom with her willful ways. There's magic and mysticism; mysterious wisps and a monstrous bear tied to some curse. And slapstick relief among the lords and Merida's father, King Fergus (voiced by Billy Connolly).
But most of all, the look of the Scottish Highlights is stunning and mirrors Merida: rugged yet beguiling (there's no substitute for research, according to production designer Steve Pilcher). We're dazzled by the first glimpse of the magnificent rock formations; the castles; the green grass, moss, and lichen mingling with the earthy brush; the orange light complementing the red curly locks of Merida as she joyfully rides her powerful Clydesdale, Angus.
As director Mark Andrews noted, however, Brave thwarts the tradition of the princess story by defying easy categorization: "It's not a princess story -- she just happens to be a princess and that raises the stakes of whatever decision she's going to be making and how it's going to affect the kingdom," he explained.
"Everybody's trying to put us into a box and I think our box is you can't put us in a box. You don't know what you're going to get out of Pixar. Sure, we do our Cars 2 and there's going to be a Monsters 2 and everyone wants an Incredibles 2.But after our Scottish epic/fantasy/adventure comes out, people are going to say it's hard to predict you guys… because we keep pushing the bar."
That's always been the Pixar way. But Brave has been exceedingly challenging, which is the price you pay for ambition and innovation. Seven years in the making, Brave was the brainchild of Brenda Chapman, who was supposed to be Pixar's first female director, but gave way to Andrews (who co-wrote John Carter with Andrew Stanton) two years ago when she reached a story impasse.
"There's a great heart at the center of this film that just isn't for moms and daughters," Andrews continued. "I'm a father of four (a girl and three boys, just like King Fergus). So I know about parenthood and the fears and tribulations. 'Look, I've done it all and I don't want you to make the same mistakes.' I get Elinor's play. I was also a teenager so I didn't want anyone telling me what to do, what to say, what to wear. So I get Merida's play. That's what I'm invested in: this universal, relatable story. I brought objectivity, which is what was needed since the story was stalling out and wasn't progressing. I don't care! Chop, chop! This doesn't work, this doesn't work, this doesn't work -- and shatter it! What still works? The mother/daughter relationship works; but there were a lot of holes. You fill in the blanks. You take Brenda's great ideas and the wonderful relationships that she started, clear away the clutter, find out where the missing places were, and solve them. I didn't succeed right off the bat. We twist and contort painfully."
But out of such pain comes something new for animation. We will just have to wait to see where this story goes and if the journey is among Pixar's best. But what's already apparent is the technical virtuosity of Merida's curly red hair, which required new software to get the look and bounce just right (more than 1,500 individually sculpted strands that generate 111,700 total hairs). That's just as difficult in its own way as Rapunzel's long, golden mane from Tangled. Credit goes to simulation supervisor Claudia Chung and the Pixar tech team.
Likewise, the cloth is so rich and detailed and uneven in its threading, which makes it all the more believable. King Fergus alone wears nine simulated garments at the same time.
Meanwhile, Pixar goes to such lengths to get the look and feel of Scotland just right that it doesn't stop until the simulated moss acts like moss and not a Brillo pad. That entailed some last-minute technical tinkering and a welcome breakthrough. "At the end of the day it's alchemy," Andrews confessed. "It's problem solving: lighting to textures to the feel of the forest to the water. They were developing the new software system, rebooting all that stuff to save time in tandem so we could actually make this movie."
Bill Desowitz is former senior editor of AWN and editor of VFXWorld. His blog is Immersed in Movies (www.billdesowitz.com), he's a regular contributor to Thompson on Hollywood at Indiewire and he's the author of the upcoming James Bond Unmasked (Spies), which chronicles the 50-year evolution of the iconic superspy from Connery to Craig.