What's my reaction to seeing the first half-hour of "Brave" (June 22)? Pixar is back at the top of its game. If the rest of the movie is as strong as what I saw at a Pixar press event in Emeryville last week, the film could be the leading Oscar contender for best animated feature. So much for last season's Oscar lockout of "Cars 2" for being a disposable popcorn movie.
In other words, leave it to Pixar to turn the princess fairy tale on its head with an ambitious medieval coming of age story about teenage rebellion and noble responsibility in the Scottish Highlands, wrapped in an action/adventure with magic and mysticism. Oh, yes, with a dash of "Moby Dick"-like scary danger thrown in for good measure along with some slapstick relief.
If you've seen the trailer, you already know that the setup involves the skilled archer and fiery redhead Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald) defying her mother, Queen Elinor (voiced by Emma Thompson), who wants to marry her off to keep the peaceful kingdom united among the three lords. However, what is glimpsed in the first 30 minutes is a majestic and gorgeous animated journey, as Pixar proves once again why it's the industry leader in storytelling and technology.
For instance, as Merida joyfully rides through the forest on her powerful Clydesdale, Angus, we notice the rich detail: her curly red locks, the horse's fetlocks, the uneven rock formations; the grass, moss, and lichen mingling with the earthy brush; the magic hour lighting and the glistening waterfalls. Then there are the mysterious wisps and the introduction of a monstrous bear that's tied to some
No wonder this has been a particularly arduous seven-year production for Pixar (with director Brenda Chapman replaced by Mark Andrews a couple of years ago as they retooled the complicated story). "Brave" not only represents the studio's first period piece but also its first female-centric protagonist. And this is a fairly dark tale to boot with a lot of elements to coalesce. Plus it required time to create
new simulation tools for hair and cloth (the physics of Merida's curly red hair is the antithesis of Rapunzel's golden mane from "Tangled," and King Fergus wears nine simulated garments at the same time).
"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," offered Andrews earlier this week at Pixar's campus. Andrews is an extrovert who flung himself completely into "Brave" when duty called after co-writing "John Carter" with Andrew Stanton while also supervising the live-action feature's second unit.
"There's a great heart at the center of this film that just isn't for moms and daughters," he emphasized. "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."
So Andrews revamped "Brave" three or four times before it finally came together. But when Pixar co-founder Ed Catmull said, "Make me cry," and then emerged from an early screening doing just that, the director found his epiphany.
"Everybody's trying to put us into a box and I think our box is you can't put us in a box," Andrews suggested. "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.' It's [about] story innovation. We still get to raise the bar for animation. Look at 'Rango': Could anybody have done 'Rango' before and have it be accepted? No, because we keep pushing the bar. Thank god for 'Rango' or 'How to Train Your Dragon'; even 'Puss in Boots.'"
Stay tuned to see if "Brave" fulfills its promise.