“Our fate lives within us,” says a determined Princess Merida in Disney-Pixar’s newest animation set in the Highlands of Scotland. “You just have to be brave enough to see it.”
No, Brave doesn’t plunge to the great theological depths of free will and divine foreknowledge, but instead begins with the premise that fate is something that can be changed ... starting with change in our hearts.
As the oldest daughter of good-natured King Fergus (Billy Connolly, Gulliver’s Travels), Merida (Kelly Macdonald, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2) is headstrong and abundantly redheaded. She’s fiercely independent, a talented archer and loves to ride through the woods on her trusty steed, expertly hitting the bull’s-eye of targets along the way. Merida cherishes her freedom, but it is soon threatened by a customary betrothal gathering her parents have long since planned.
“We can’t just run away from who we are,” Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson, Nanny McPhee Returns) says to her daughter upon the royal offspring’s initial protest. Soon, the unruly and uproarious Scottish lords of the land will bring their first-born sons to the castle to compete for Merida’s hand in marriage. And thankfully, the princess gets to choose which game will be the center of suitor competition. Archery it is!
But after the sons try their hand at making their marks, a new and unexpected firstborn arrives on the scene: Merida. “I’ll be shooting for my own hand,” she boldly announces, since technically she is still following the rules. But taking matters into her own hands comes with its own set of consequences, namely conflict with the Queen who only wants to follow tradition and secure a suitable husband and future for her fiery child.
For the rest of the film, mother and daughter dance a highly emotional jig. And during a pivotal argument—after a family portrait tapestry is symbolically torn and a horrible declaration is made (“I’d rather die than be like you!”)—Merida runs away from compromise and into the woods.
When she encounters a curious wood-carving witch (Julie Walters, Gnomeo & Juliet), Merida jumps at the chance to live life on her own terms and purchases a spell—one that she hopes will quickly and easily change her fate. To set everything in motion, the witch conjures up a special cake that Merida will need to serve to the Queen. But she also offers the lass a cryptic rhyme: “Fate can be changed/ Look inside/ Mend the bond/ Torn by pride.”
When the spell goes awry, the Queen Elinor is turned into a bear ... which happens to be the very sort of furry creature King Fergus is chomping at the bit to hunt once again. Merida must hurriedly figure out how to protect her "mama bear" and somehow break the spell.
And interestingly enough, it will involve mending much more than a torn tapestry.
With its vivid coloring and spirited pacing, Brave illustrates that true bravery lies in transformation, forgiveness and reconciliation that comes from the heart. Recently, I spoke with Producer Katherine Sarafian (The Incredibles) about these strong themes and asked her more about the making of Brave, why it needed to be rated PG and how seeing complicated conflict resolution can be good fodder for discussion for movie-going families.
How was working on Brave different than working on some of the other Pixar and Disney-Pixar films you’ve been a part of?
Well, Brave had some differences, but they were all really long hauls. They all take at least four years to make. And some of them even take six years.Brave took the longest of any of the films I’ve worked on, trying to build a sense of community and keep the team m otivated over a long period of time. That was one difference. Another thing that was different is in terms of the creative on this movie. We had never visited an ancient time period and had never set a film really in this extremely organic setting. Not since A Bug’s Life had we really done that much vegetation and foliage. And a naturalistic setting and human animation and trying to set it in an ancient time period was a new design look for us and a new technology focus for us. So that presented its challenges as well.
What are your thoughts on the voice talent in Brave? Everyone seems so perfectly suited for their roles. I can’t imagine it would be hard to find actors who want to be a part of a Disney-Pixar production.
You know, surprisingly, it is really hard to find the right people, and you can’t always get your first choice. We were really, really, really blessed that we were able to get our first choices in most cases—particularly with King Fergus—and it was our dream cast. We wanted Emma Thompson and Billy Connolly based on what the characterization required. They have that warmth and family oriented-ness, and they’re also great comic actors. And they have the importance of royalty. They were able to bring all of that. But there have been, in the history of Pixar, people who have turned us down before. First of all, there is scheduling and time commitments. And then there are other things. Once we had somebody turn down the role because it was the villain. And the man’s kids didn’t want him to play the bad guy in a movie. It’s like, “Oh I’d love to be in a Pixar film! Can I be the good guy?” And it’s like, “No, we don’t see you that way. Sorry. Maybe a future project.” But in this film we were very fortunate to get the cast that we got.
This film is PG and only one of two (The Incredibles) Pixar films that has had that rating. Why did it need to be PG and not G?
It’s definitely got some action in it and some intensity that’s very much a PG movie. Really we felt that the story required it, and as with The Incredibles we never want to be gratuitous and have stuff that’s not necessary. It’s got to be from the story. And from the beginning when the story was conceived by Brenda Chapman [screenwriter] she wanted to go into a bit of a darker territory and show real consequences for actions and really not gloss over how bad things can get. And I think the idea was thinking that you’ll be on this journey with Merida. If we can make Merida appealing and likeable enough and her mother [Queen Elinor] and you’re rooting for them, you’ll join them on this journey no matter how intense it may get. But things cannot be easy for Merida, and she has to face real consequences. And you know the bear had to be really intense and scary to pose a real threat to the kingdom. King Fergus needs to really want to hunt this bear. The stakes had to be real, and we believe that it had to be intense to get there. And, of course, because it’s a Pixar movie we want our audiences to know that they’re in good hands, so we balance that with humor and heart and lots of other things. But yeah, we really felt we wanted to tell a story that went into a darker territory and was more reminiscent of the cautionary tales we grew up with—you know, like the Grimm’s [fairy] tales where there was some intense stuff but you learned your lessons.
Do you think it’s good for families to see that the conflict resolution between Merida and Elinor didn’t happen easily as a result of the witch’s spell, but that it took some change on both the parts of mother and daughter?
We saw that as very important. When you start using magic ... in any magic it’s like there are the rules of magic and you could make up your own rules. So we wanted to make sure that our magic had real rules to it where we could logically trace it so that we were always checking ourselves against the magic. Does the magic cause this or this? Where are the limits of the magic and what is true love and forgiveness and repentance and saying "I’m sorry"—what does that get you that magic can’t get you? And so it was really important to us that the magic only take it so far. And sewing up that tapestry ... actually Elinor didn’t do a darn thing and that’s a devastating moment for Merida. I guess that’s the limit of the magic and that her logic and her thinking wouldn’t help her there. She had to look into her heart. She had to really express and apologize and show true love and that’s what’s transformative in life. And we want our viewers to take away that point. That’s what changes you and that’s what helps you grow when you’re coming of age.
The overarching theme of Brave is “change your fate.” As a person of faith, do you believe we can change our fate or do you believe that it is controlled by a higher power?
I think everyone has their own perspective on this. In terms of me and my faith, I think it’s both. I think there's a higher power who oversees our faith, but without prayer and being present in our faith we can’t have a say in it. I’m a firm believer in the power of prayer. You call it fate or destiny or any number of things, but it’s like I think if you put out there to your higher power what you’re wanting, you may not get exactly that. But you’re going to get what you need; you’re going to get what God wants for you. And so I think you can’t just turn it over and say, "Oh, whatever God wants is going to happen.” I think prayer is important there.
There are probably many, but can you pick a favorite moment in the film?
I have so many favorite moments. In constructing a film they’re all meaningful. One that resonates with me particularly is the ending. There’s a little moment in the epilogue just when things have resolved already, but when Merida and Mom are sewing the tapestry together at the end. What I like about that is really that first tapestry was sewn completely by Elinor, and if you look at it, its characters all face straight out. And that’s the one that Merida slashes, right between the relationship. But the second tapestry, they’re sewing together. And if you look at the image of it you’ve got Mom in bear form. They’re looking straight at each other, and they’re holding hands and touching really for the first time. And they’re doing it together, and they’re enjoying it. So as parent and child there’s a feeling of play and sharing and appreciation, and Merida’s like, “I actually want to do this thing that Mom likes to do right now.” And Mom is showing her own image as a bear, and it’s like, “I am comfortable enough with what I went through that I can depict it. I don’t want to put it behind me. I want to know that this happened.” And I just love that moment and when the music kicks in. I always get a little misty there.
What do you think sets apart Disney-Pixar films from other animation?
Well, I do love the medium of animation, and I’m always glad that there’s a lot out there. I think that what we do is try to focus on a story and try to trust our audiences to be really intelligent. And we want to tell the best story we can for our audiences, and that means that we’re willing to—and I think this is kind of a very Pixar thing—we’re willing to change things all along the pipeline whatever it takes. So that’s why it takes so long to make these movies. We could have made a movie in three years, and it would be so-so. But we want to take the extra time and really make the story the best it can be, and so we take extra time on it. And we’re willing to let go of if we loved a character or a scene that was so entertaining to us, but we have to cut it out because it doesn’t serve the story or we have to lose a scene that we really, really loved because it was inefficient or it was confusing. And those things are hard to do as filmmakers; you love all your babies and you love all the scenes in your movies, but you have to be willing to get rid of a lot of them. And I think we’re willing to do that. And we know the story requires it sometimes, and that changes everything whether it’s animation to the inflection of a voice to getting rid of or adding a character late in the game. We will do that, and I think it makes a difference.
What can audiences expect next from Disney-Pixar? Can you give a sneak peek of what’s hitting theaters after Brave?
We’re always very cagey; we don’t want to say too much. Monsters University comes out in Summer of 2013. And its’ a really ... well, I’ve seen it, so I’m really excited about it. It’s really funny and takes you to the origin of this friendship between Mike and Sullivan in college. And after that we have The Good Dinosaur in 2014 which is our first movie with dinosaurs in it, so you can imagine how that’s going to be. And it’s from Bob Peterson, the director who is so fun and funny and such a heartfelt talent. I just love everything he does. And we’re also working on a Dia de los Muertos movie about the Mexican “Day of the Dead.” And we also have a movie that takes you inside the human mind that doesn’t have a title yet. That’s kind of an interesting one ... you know what goes on in our brain and what controls our emotions.
Starring the voice talents of Kelly Macdonald, Emma Thompson, Billy Connolly and Julie Walters and rated PG for some scary action and rude humor, Disney-Pixar’s Brave releases wide in theaters on June 22, 2012.
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