"Brave" (opening Friday) is far from the disappointment expressed in some early reviews. It's not only the much ballyhooed breakthrough as Pixar's first female-centric movie but also the most lush-looking work yet from the animation powerhouse. It's a powerful mother-daughter crucible set in medieval Scotland but with a modern sensibility and marks a break from the usual Pixar buddy formula.
Indeed, watching two control freaks, Queen Elinor (voiced by Emma Thompson) and Princess Merida (voiced by Kelly MacDonald), butt heads is rare for animation. It makes no difference that they're royalty — it merely raises the stakes. "Brave" is about a free-spirited teenager who rejects her mother's old world values– and the magical turn of events that forces them to "mend the bond torn by pride." Think Disney's "Freaky Friday" only more Grimm. Or a lightweight "Into the Woods," which Rob Marshall is adapting at Disney.
But take it from Brenda Chapman, who was inspired by the friction with her own willful daughter to write and direct "Brave," only to be replaced during the last leg of the marathon after butting heads with the Pixar brain trust: "It was absolutely my intention to subvert the princess role," she posted in the comments about the Women and Hollywood article, "Is Princess Culture Redeemable?" "There is no prince in my movie. And my princess is a true teenager in that her real 'problem' (or so she thinks) is her own mother. A working mom and her daughter love story/action-adventure/fairytale. I wanted to turn the pink princesses on their heads — no pink and prince — and I'm not talkin' the songbirds."
From what I gather, Chapman's plot became too complicated: she couldn't see the forest through the trees. "The mother/daughter relationship works, but there were a lot of holes," suggests Mark Andrews, who replaced Chapman as director 18 months ago."We had to get rid of all the stuff that didn't work or cluttered the main themes…a lot of [ideas] that we were spinning to bring in these magical, mythical elements. You find out where the missing pieces are and fill in the blanks and solve the problems. It's pain in the ass work."
Maybe so, but even Chapman conceded last year in Pixar Portal that after six-and-a-half years she was still struggling with simplification: "We were finally able to hone it down to the simple bare bones of it to see what we really needed to go forward. We weeded out some characters and weeded out some complications to the plot…. I related to the mother character very much. I was always trying to pull on the truths of a relationship and not rely just on the stereotypes. I would pull things directly from my day sometimes. I'd come in and say, 'You won't believe what happened to me this morning!' and sometimes it would fit really great."
Though perhaps "Brave" could've been more daring, the brain trust clearly misses its great go-to story guy, the late Joe Ranft (who recruited "The Prince of Egypt" director after stints at Disney and DreamWorks). But Pixar should be applauded for making its first "chick flick," while conjuring a more organic look. That's because the studio benefitted from several breakthroughs, principally a more robust animation program called Presto (named in honor of the 2008 short), which allowed them to groom hair and tailor clothing more easily in the same model. Meanwhile, a new advancement in simulation allowed Merida's wild, curly, unkempt orange hair to personify her fiery spirit. Thanks to parallel processing, more believable hair to hair collision was now attainable.
"Simulation is finally at a point where we can be artistic," explains simulation supervisor Claudia Chung. "If [they] wanted Merida to have a different hair style, my reaction was no longer, 'Are you kidding me?!' It was more like: 'OK, let's do it — let's figure it out artistically."
Clothing, too, was very challenging. King Fergus required eight layers and mastering a kilt was no small feat. "How do you model a kilt and make it look realistic?" asks Chung. "In the end, the tailors created a hybrid approach that was modeled and tailored into flat shapes. Fergus' kilt has an accordion zigzag shape. It was layered cloth that creates the folds naturally when relaxed."
Meanwhile, Pixar captured an authentic-looking Scotland in keeping with its mystical tale, from the green grass to the rolling fog to the massive rock formations to the turbulent changes in weather. Why, even the moss was fully detailed, thanks to a last-minute experiment by technical director Inigo Quilez, who created tiny moss-shaped pixels from Photoshop brushes created by production designer Steve Pilcher. "You could orchestrate where it goes," says Pilcher. "You could have it go up a tree and over boulders; leave some gaps; add more color variations. What happened was it went over all this material and it looked so lush. It would show the translucency on a certain angle; it would blow in the wind."
It's no longer about the technical hurdles but about hitting the vision of the director — or in this case, the two directors. Make no mistake: "Brave" puts Pixar back on track for Oscar contention — let's see how Elinor and Merida's crucible resonates with voters.