BRAVE: First 30 minutes reaction plus we visit the PIXAR Studios!
Many of us have been curious about this year's Pixar release: BRAVE and there is little question as to why... Firstly it's the studio's first feature coming off of the lackluster CARS 2, which, like most people, I found to be the worst Pixar movie to date. Secondly, BRAVE runs through a checklist of records for the studio. It's their first female protagonist, first period piece, longest production cycle (having roots way back to 2005), it ran through more script pages and storyboards than any other Pixar project and it objectively looks more realistic than any of its predecessors. So to enlighten those interested, Disney rounded up a group of us to visit the Pixar Studios in Emeryville, California to get an idea of just what it is they have been cooking up all these years with BRAVE.
To kick off, I'm going to dive right into my impressions of the first 30 minutes of the movie, which they kindly shared with us. While there were still rough edges to the animation (the occasional lack of shading), the first quarter of the picture felt 100% air tight, both in its narrative and its execution. Put it simply, from just the first quarter, I can say BRAVE has every opportunity to be another Pixar knockout.
Without delving too deep into spoilers and surprises I'd like to keep fresh, It opens with a short prologue involving our hero, Princess Merida (Kelly Macdonald) as an infant with her father King Fergus (Billy Connolly) and a dangerous encounter with a wild bear. It is a bit expository but there is a genuine tension to the scene and frankly, its building pace is necessary to get acquainted with the luscious visuals of Scotland. My appreciation of this prologue will no doubt seep in after I watch the entire movie, as I'm sure the bear attack holds more weight in the story than just what I was shown (one of the working titles after all was THE BEAR & THE BOW). We then reunite years later with Merida, who is now a teen with three little rugrat brothers and we discover that after the bear attack, her father is still intact... minus a leg, which has been replaced with a "mighty oak" stump. The story of her fathers battle with the beast becomes legend. Here the story moves to Merida's relationship with her family, specifically her mother, Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson).
It seems Merida is very much her father's daughter, at the dinner table she is shown having real affection with the men in the family. There are great moments when she goofs around with her brothers that feels genuine and warm. I have to say, Merida doesn't come across as a tomboy nor is this a story of the daughter and the son her father never had-- Merida is still quite feminine, just not the Princess her mother wants her to be, which is where the crux of the movie seems to focus. Queen Elinor wears the pants in the family, she keeps everything in check, including her husband. One of the best scenes early on involves three tribes coming to King Fergus' castle, each tribe offering their Kings first born son for Meridas hand in marriage... it's the typical thing, you know-- ensuring peace between the kingdoms n' all. Like clockwork, what starts out as a courtious introduction between the four tribes turns into a gut-wrenchingly funny brawl that lasts at least five minutes, that is until Queen Elinor comes in and everyone regains composure.
What's most interesting about this is what stands out from other Pixar films- the feminine perspective. The brutish men come across as loving but idiotic, tempestuous but obedient. At the end of the day, Queen Elinore and the other women are the ones keeping their kingdoms in order... If only Merida understood this, her mother must be thinking. The lack of understanding between Elinore and Merida comes across perfectly. The best scene in the first 30 minutes consists of Ellinor and Merida separately explaining their point of view to each other, practicing for the day when they might just have an honest conversation. The speeches are edited together so it sounds as if they are talking to each other. Both end their rehearsals with "if only you'd listen...". Like THE INCREDIBLES, neither the perspective of the child or parent is given more weight than the other, both parties come across genuinely trying, albeit failing, to relate to one another.
What follows is an archery contest between the tribes that you can see in the second trailer (it's much, much longer and absolutely hysterical) as well as an extended musical number that feels straight out of a classic Disney movie; Merida rides her horse out of the castle and through the forest, shooting her arrows into make-shift targets hidden in the trees. The beauty and the detail gave me a chill. I have to say the music from Patrick Doyle (his first PIXAR movie) is wonderful and feels compete fresh. The thirty minutes ended RIGHT when the story seemed to begin, which includes a good old fashion magical spell (oh how I love the Disney spell). I have to also point out that the accents are fantastic, of course a number of voice talent are actually Scottish, even so, they didn't dumb down the drawl at all. There is even a hilarious moment when everyone blankly stares at each other in confusion after one of the tribesman says something completely incomprehensible due to the thickness of his accent. Overall, I was very pleased with what was shown.
I also can't talk about the first thirty minutes of BRAVE without mentioning LA LUNA, the oscar nominated short that will be released with it. This was my first viewing of it and without a doubt LA LUNA is my favorite Pixar short to date. It's imaginative and encompasses beautifully the story every Pixar film strives to tell in just 6 minutes: finding your place in the world while understanding and appreciating the world your family wants for you. It's damn brilliant. I almost cried, no joke.
As we drove into the Pixar studios there was an archery set-up outside in between the main building and the new "Brooklyn" building. The publicists insisted that we all give it a shot, though I had a little hesitation, the night before I watched a double bill of WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN and THE HUNGER GAMES, so I wasn't crazy about a bow and arrow in my hands. As I tried a few unsuccessful shots, an intense-looking dude with long greasy black hair and a BRAVE t-shirt came out of nowhere and with no introduction picked up a bow and started plucking arrows into the bullseye like he was swatting flies. Rapidly... one by one... without miss. This was my first introduction to BRAVE'S director, Mark Andrews.
BRAVE had a very public swapping of directors in the fall of 2010. The original director, Brenda Chapman (THE PRINCE OF EGYPT), conceived of and pitched the idea of BRAVE to Pixar in 2005. "We've had four director changes here at Pixar. It happens." Mark told me. This handing over of the torch seems more comfortable within the confines of Pixar than most other productions, I suppose it's just within the nature of their team oriented envirement. "What I brought to it was objectivity because I wasn't invested in it for five, six years. It's what Brad (Bird) brought to RATATOUILLE when he took over the project. I didn't change Brenda's story. Pixar Loved that. We loved that. We just needed to figure out how to make it work." As Mark puts it, they could have handed the reigns over to Pete Docter or Lee Unkrich or another leader of the Pixar "brain trust", the executives who lead the creative descisions for the company, but they decided to trust Mark. "Pixar understood that I had an affinity and passion for the project that others in the brain trust couldn't reach."
"I remember working on IRON GIANT with Brad Bird. He came in one day and just said 'It's not working. We're going to go in and cut everything. I want you to be vicious.' He actually needed us to pull the bandage. He was sitting in the back squealing. Tough love. That needs to happen sometimes. It doesn't invalidate what others have done or what they've put into it, it's a process. Even the best of us get bogged down." Mark explained.
Many film professors have said the greatest strength a filmmaker can have is the ability to "cut their babies", and if that is the case, it becomes clear why Pixar chose Mark to pick up BRAVE. When we asked if there was anything particularly hard to let go, he replied simply "Nope. Not me... I know that the tech guys who spent two years doing snow were very unhappy with me because I cut out the second half of the film which all took place in the snow, it had to do with a magic spell but nobody else in the movie questioned why it was snowing in the middle of summer. Didn't make sense. Gone!"
One of the most intriguing aspects to the project is just how much they have taken out. "There is no villain. There is no mentor. There is no love interest..." Mark told me, smiling. There also isn't a gender prerogative, as Mark tells it, "I don't think she's any different from the previous Pixar protagonists being a girl. The thing that makes Woody take off and go are his own faults, the things that make Merida take off and go are her own faults. It's like we all are. Most of the time we can't really blame anyone else. In BRAVE it's all internal forces." This is fascinating to me, as one of the most notable things about BRAVE is how archetypal it comes across compared to some other Pixar films that seem unique, what with the balloons and rats and all.
"We're very aware of that, you've got the Princess, the affairs of the state, what she wants to be, you're going to be reminded of all the princess stories that have come before. We don't worry about that big, familiar veneer. What we were focusing on is what makes this character real. To solve Merida is the big deal. There are ways to show that, through a mentor or antagonist or a rooting love interest, but isn't more interesting if we explore that in such an economic way for less?"
That's where to real challenges are risks are with BRAVE. "I saw very clearly that there is a theme of duality in this story. It starts with her fate, the treasure or doom, a teenager is also stuck between two different worlds: being a child and being an adult. The Queen has the estate and her family. The Lords have who they are and who they have to appear to be. There's a duality in everything and a duality in every myth. Weaving that together and building it out until the ducks are lined up in a row and you have a road map."
Like every Pixar film before it too, BRAVE was not excluded from unprecedented technical challenges as well as the narrative ones. Clothing, hair and vegetation appears to be the most daunting technical challenges the production has faced. Clothing for Pixar has never looked better, Simulation Supervisor Claudia Chung points out that King Fergus wears 16 layers of clothing, each individually rendered AND each individually woven. Previous Pixar clothing simply expanded the algorithm for fabric weaving by multiplying to the inch, unfortunately 9th Century Scott's couldn't be that precise, so they rendered each strand of cloth to be uniquely woven. This might seem unnecessarily complicated but believe me, it's one of those extra attentions to detail that wrap you inside the world.
Likewise, Merida's hair is mesmerizing (yeah, I just said mesmerizing talking about hair). After TANGLED, Disney's internal Animation company and Pixar exchanged ideas about CG hair and what Pixar took out of Disney's process is that they could blindly render based on per-determined physics and "check the next morning" to see what needed to be fixed. A good number of times, especially in scene where the head doesn't move, there didn't need to be any animation changes, saving Pixar a lot of time to worry about the money shots of Merida's hair fluttering in the wind. They were excited to point out that if they rendered Marida's hair on Pixar's old system, it would have taken "literally 10 years" to render the movie. Merida's hair is so explosive, Steve Pitcher, the Production Designer showed us that it allowed for wider, more spectacular vista shots, since she would still be easy to point out. Mark even pointed out that an early production title for the project was BRAVEHAIR, playing off of BRAVEHEART.
And speaking of vista shots, BRAVE has had a freaking boatload of art and storyboards dating back to 2005. Just take a look at the comparisons Mark drew out for us:
BRAVE : 111,394
CARS 2 : 80,000
TOY STORY 3 : 92,854
From this to Mark's strength of "killing babies", there were a total of approximately 100 scenes drawn for the film and only 35 ended up in the final product. Talk about objectivity. There are dozens of facts and statistics concerning the evolution of Pixar leading to the culmination of BRAVE but I won't bore you with the details, I'll leave you with an adjective as bold as the films title: BEAUTIFUL. The opportunity for this to be as good as we all hope seems to be more and more evident the more I see. I can't wait.
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|Extra Tidbit:||Mark Andrews was asked to join the Junior Olympics for archery when he was 12. He claims it is just a coincidence he was asked to direct BRAVE... I dunno, sounds like fate to me.|