Pixar's Brave: 30 minutes of footage impressions, and chatting with director Mark Andrews
We managed to see 30 minutes of Pixar’s latest animation Brave, and catch up with the film’s director Mark Andrews. Here’s what we thought…
Mark Andrews thinks hair is a big pain in the arse, and as director of Pixar’s Brave, the studio’s first film with a female lead possessed with a magnificent mane, he’d know. Simulating the movement of cloth poses similar problems for animators, but hair is the real challenge. Getting a human head's worth of strands to interact convincingly with light, gravity, sudden breezes, and each other takes no small amount of computational work. So did Andrews ever consider going the G.I Jane route and having Brave’s Princess Merida shave her head early on? No, is the answer. It’d sell fewer Happy Meals for a start.
Defying the expectations of her gender is more or less Princess Merida’s thing, so perhaps the head-shaving wouldn’t seem too out-of-character. Voiced by Kelly Macdonald after Reese Witherspoon left the project, Merida is a medieval teenager with a rebellious streak, and a pure talent with a bow and arrow.
If all of that sounds worryingly anachronistic to you, then perhaps it’s best not to dig any deeper into the film’s historical accuracy. Brave is set in a fantasy version of historical Scotland, somewhere between the 8th and 12th centuries, when castles were built of stone (they weren’t), men wore kilts (they didn’t), Mumford and Sons were on the soundtrack and Pizza Planet truck Easter eggs were ingeniously hidden in background scenery (needless to say…).
Pixar top dog John Lasseter’s mantra being research, research, research, Brave obviously necessitated fact-finding missions to Scotland, trips Andrews admits the animation team spent skinny-dipping in lochs, rolling around in heather and drinking more than the angels’ share of the local whisky.
Andrews’ description of that trip paints rather a different idea of animators than that which more usually comes to mind: pale, quiet types lit by the reflective glare of their screens and obsessing over rigs and polygons (dinnae fret, I can get away with such crude caricaturing of CG artists by dint of being married to one). Mark Andrews is nothing like that in person. Tanned, long-haired, loud and Californian, Andrews is more Anthony Kiedis than Nick Park, but then again, he’s a director, being extrovert is more or less his job.
Brave is Pixar’s first feature led by a female protagonist and was almost its first feature directed by a woman too, before former DreamWorks director Brenda Chapman was replaced by Andrews. The film’s female-centric narrative passes the Bechdel test within the first five minutes, as Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson with a Scottish brogue) and daughter lock horns over Merida’s future and royal responsibilities, which touch upon but aren’t limited to her impending marriage.
Merida is being sold - quite rightly by the looks of the half hour of Brave we were invited to preview - as an antidote to Disney princesses of old. She’s a skilled archer and horsewoman, an adventurer and role model to her naughty younger brothers, and yes, she’s brave.
Merida’s story in the opening thirty minutes of the film is about feeling constricted by her gender and royal position, and frustrated by her mother’s refusal to listen to her. The film’s sweet opening scene shows the young Merida’s close and playful relationship with her mother, one replaced by defiance and hostility as adulthood looms. Part of Merida’s journey in Brave will be finding a way back to being her mother’s daughter, whilst achieving that modern self-help cliché of being true to herself.
Personal growth won’t be Merida’s only adventure of course, there’s also a mythological Bear King to be dealing with, one that did a Moby Dick by taking off half of her father’s leg years earlier. Previously, the bear featured higher up in Brave’s title (previous versions of which included The Bear and the Bow, The Bear King and his Daughter, Brave and the Bow, and, wait for it... Bravehair).
(An incidental word on Pixar titles: the legions of talented animators working on a Pixar film don’t have time for many-syllabled post-colon extravagances, so each Pixar film goes by a shorthand to the men and women working on it. The Incredibles was Hero, Ratatouille was Rat, Up! was, well, Up! and The Bear and the Bow was gradually pared down to Brave.)
To the animation and models themselves then. It’s fair to say that Brave looks great. The highland landscapes are painterly and beautifully lit, and the character design, from horse to man to mischievous triplet, is some of the best I’ve seen.
What made a real impression (possibly because its characters are human, a rare thing from Pixar) is how stylised and character-driven the walks are. Merinda’s a tomboy so she bounces and bounds, Queen Elinor’s the essence of royal grace so she glides, and King Fergus (Billy Connolly, the stand-out member of the voice cast) is an enormous hunk of meat with all the weight his kingly warrior role requires.
The script is funny too, the story engaging, and the protagonist easy to root for, if not as endearing as say, a Wall-E or a Nemo. In short, Brave looks very decent indeed, and Merida makes for a very welcome addition to Disney’s princess roster. The film’s crowning glory though, pain in the arse it may be, has to be that fantastic-looking hair. What a barnet.
Brave comes out in the US on June 22nd and in the UK on August 17th 2012.