We all love Studio Ghibli. Okay, most of us. And that clearly includes most of Pixar too.
There’s been lots of evidence of the love affair between John Lasseter’s lot and Hayao Miyazaki’s mob over the years, but none of it as charming, and convincing as Brave, Pixar’s next.
Because an even more sincere form of flattery than imitation is breathing in an influence until it fills you up, becomes part of you, mixes with your own ideas, and comes out again, coiled into the DNA of your own work.
And joining Ghibli in the mix for Brave is the Disney-style “Princess fairy tale”, but I don’t think you’d necessarily recognise it for lack of singing characters, sidekick animals and charming princes.
Merida, the protagonist of Brave, certainly isn’t waiting for a dashing you man to come along. Indeed, no love interest shows up. Not ever.
A few unsuitable suitors get memorable scenes but Prince Charming has got nothing to do with this story. Sure, we start out with Princess Merida being expected to accept a traditional arranged marriage, but Merida kicks that cart over pretty quickly and from there, we’re just moving further and further away from any danger of a romantic entanglement.
Instead, the relationships in this film are family ones. And they’re not all happy.
The clan at the heart of Brave is the Clan DunBroch: King Fergus; Princes Harry, Hamish and (for some reason) Hubert; Queen Elinor; Princess Merida. And particularly the last two. This film is Elinor and Merida’s story. In many of the best scenes, it’s just the two of them. In perhaps the very best scenes, it’s the two of them, not talking.
There’s another key player, though she only appears briefly – a witch with a penchant for bears and wood carving and who, thanks to a brilliantly detailed, cluttered workshop manages to smuggle three rather unlikely Pixar easter eggs into the same scene. You’ll see the Ghibli influence break the surface in the Witch’s design.
Early in the story, Merida visits the Witch and asks for a spell that will change her fate. She’s a teenaged girl so you won’t be surprised to hear what she really wants – Merida’s mission is to change is her mother, who she doesn’t feel understands her. Queen Elinor, for her own part, has been trying to change Merida. She wants to tie her down a little, make her less wild, more like one of those Disney Princesses that have no place in this story.
So Merida wishes that her mother was different. She soon learns, as those in folk tales so often do, that she should be careful what she wishes for.
Brave is a typically well mounted, handsome and attractive production. But it’s not just pretty pictures. Chewed over for years, Pixar’s eye candy is made to a sophisticated recipe, full of flavour and character. Nothing on screen is an accident. The film also sounds tremendous, including a couple of songs performed by Julie Fowlis.
But this isn’t really the authentic look and sound of Scotland, not quite. It’s “Scotland” instead, a sweetened, heightened version. Everything is a little bit mythical, right down to the Tartan. Sometimes, it’s even sunny, and I do know Scots who scoffed at this, liking to imagine themselves under a black cloud. But bad weather fans should not that there are plenty of mists, too, and wisps that swim in them.
The most authentically Scottish thing about the film would be the cast, with the distinct exception of John Ratzenberger, but we shouldn’t blame the studio for hanging on to their lucky charm. Kelly MacDonald replaced Reese Witherspoon as Merida at some point in production, and it seems to have been a faultless decision. She plays Merida as Scot through and through and convincingly teenaged, not to mention suitably feisty. Between MacDonald’s performance, and to a larger extent, the character’s course of action throughout the story, Merida becomes one of the most interesting, if grounded, Pixar protagonists yet.
As the film went from years of planning into the first stages of animation, the duty of directing Brave was passed from Brenda Chapman, who originated the story, to John Carter co-writer and second unit director Mark Andrews. Looking at the finished film there seems to be no obvious join, no clear discord or hard stutter as the film joins its style to its substance. Indeed, the style is the substance. Witness the difference between Elinor and Merida’s hair, or the colouring and cut of their clothes. Watch out for the lighting changes as the story arc curves. This film was formed with dedication to Pixar’s determination that everything is story.
Here’s an example. Early in the film, Merida and Elinor don’t have a conversation. Each is speaking openly, but one-sidedly. They’re saying, out loud, what they would say to one another, but neither is with the other. If they could actually have this conversation, everything would be different. Including for us – there’d be no film.
But they don’t have the conversation. Each is in their own scene, cross cut for the audience. We get to hear the entire exchange between mother and daughter as it doesn’t happen. It’s a fantastic explication of the film’s themes.
And not a spare limb is wasted in the overall structure of the story either. For an example of this, here’s a callback to the earlier problem: later on in the story, when Merida and Elinor really do need to speak to one another, urgently, they can’t. This time, they’re in the same room, and the cutting goes back and forth between the two of them as they try to solve their problem with another form of communication. It’s played for laughs, and it is funny, but it lands perfectly on theme too.
Not every joke in the film works perfectly, and you may be surprised how small-scale a story it is, intimate and closed-in, but Brave is a rich, tender film and so exquisitely well-crafted that I was quite thoroughly won over.
Brave is released in the US on June 22nd, in Scotland on August 3rd and in the rest of the UK in the week of August 17th. Between now and then, we’ll be discussing it much, much more, and I’ll be bringing you word from my conversations with many of the Pixarians who made it.