A Timeless Story Takes A 'Brave' Female Twist Pixar's new film is its first with a female lead — and its first fairy tale. Brave features a mother-daughter dynamic that star Kelly Macdonald says could take place "anywhere, at any time." The rebellious princess also presented a technical challenge: Animating her hair required a software upgrade.
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A Timeless Story Takes A 'Brave' Female Twist

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A Timeless Story Takes A 'Brave' Female Twist

A Timeless Story Takes A 'Brave' Female Twist

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Pixar has made hits out of stories about a little robot named Wall-E, a fish called Nemo, a car, Lightning McQueen, and toys - think Buzz Lightyear. Finally, this weekend Pixar releases its first animated film about a young woman, a bold and daring one. NPR's Linda Wertheimer spoke to the star and producer of "Brave."

LINDA WERTHEIMER, BYLINE: "Brave" is also Pixar's first fairy tale. It's set in a medieval kingdom in the highlands of Scotland, where a queen has staged a competition. Suitors from rival clans will vie for the chance to marry her daughter.


EMMA THOMPSON: (as Elinor) In accordance with our laws, only the firstborn may compete for the hand of the fair maiden.

WERTHEIMER: Each clan sends its finest.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Your Majesty, I present my eldest son, who scuttled the Viking longships and with his bare hands vanquished 2,000 hordes.

WERTHEIMER: The feisty princess is unimpressed. She takes matters into her own hands. She grabs her bow and arrow, flips back her mane of wild red curls, and enters the competition herself.


KELLY MACDONALD: (as Merida) I am Merida, firstborn descendant of Clan DunBroch, and I'll be shooting for my own hand.

WERTHEIMER: Princess Merida is voiced by actress Kelly Macdonald. Macdonald joined us from NPR West along with the producer of "Brave," Katherine Sarafian. Good morning to the two of you.


MACDONALD: Good morning.

WERTHEIMER: I have to say just off the bat that one costar of the film is Princess Merida's hair. I mean I could not take my eyes off that hair. It's got tendrils and curls and they all move and they all move separately. I understand that Pixar actually created new software to animate this hair and that it was the first time Pixar had done something like that since it made "Toy Story." Is that right?

SARAFIAN: That is right. I mean, we - it was time for an upgrade. You know, we've really worked with the same suite of software since the very earliest days. So it was definitely time for an upgrade, but adopting new software is highly traumatic for a team. Everything had to be reinvented.

But, you know, it was worth it, because the story served up this challenge of this, like, spirited, untamed wild child of a girl. And that hair was part of her design and part of her character.

WERTHEIMER: Kelly Macdonald, as an actress I think most American audiences would know you from "Boardwalk Empire." How do you get yourself in the mood or in the whatever it is, whatever you need, to play this little child character?

MACDONALD: Well, I was really lucky. I think I really fed a lot off of Mark Andrews, the director, who is the loudest, most exuberant man I've ever met. And he would set the scene for me. And then it would be a couple of minutes of silence, I think, in front of the mic while I just sort of assimilated all the information in my head.

And so I was always in a room with him and he read the lines with me. But it is a challenge. It's totally different from film and television acting. It's totally different and I really loved it. It was really liberating.

WERTHEIMER: Kelly Macdonald, I don't want to give too much of the plot away, but one of the themes of "Brave" is Merida versus her mother the Queen and the tension between them.

MACDONALD: Yeah. Because, really, the thing about this story is it could actually have been set anywhere at any time. You know, it's about that mother-daughter dynamic and the trouble teenage girls can find themselves in when they start battling their mother. So I loved all that. I'm sort of nervous for my mother to see the film, to be honest, because I spend the whole film going, Mom! I think she's going to be a nervous wreck.


MACDONALD: (as Merida) And there is my mother. She's in charge of every single day of my life.

THOMPSON: (as Elinor) A lady rises early. (Unintelligible) does not place her weapons on the table.

MACDONALD: (as Merida) Ugh, Mom.

WERTHEIMER: Now, I understand that you all take research trips to make decisions about settings and try to understand what you're going to put on the screen and what we will see on the screen.

SARAFIAN: Yes. I mean, of course we - you know, as a producer I'm always watching the dollars and the bottom line so my first question is always can we just do this with books, right? You know, do I have to fly 12 artists across the world? And the answer is yes, you really do have to fly everyone there.

When we got there, what we discovered was that the land is just steeped in legend and storytelling. Every single person we met told us some sort of story, whether it was our bus driver - you know, we're driving past the hills, like, oh, that's the hill where I proposed to my wife. Or, you know, that's the river where they had the great battle of so and so.

Every tree and rock and, you know, blade of grass seemed to have its own story.

WERTHEIMER: Katherine Sarafian, in addition to a female star and you, a female producer, there was a female director on this film and also female writers. I mean basically the animation industry has pretty much been guys' work. But not this time.

SARAFIAN: I think, you know, it really has been guys' work, historically. I mean, you know, the Disney - the historic Disney nine old men were called nine old men for a reason. They were nine and they were all men. And you know, the industry is gradually changing and shifting and I think we have more women coming into animation and story programs in schools than we ever had.

Interestingly, a lot of our top animation folks who handled horse animation and the animal animation that's very tricky to do were female animators. I don't know if it's girls and their horses or what, but we really had a lot of great knowledgeable horse folk on the film who were women as well.

WERTHEIMER: Now, "Brave" is dedicated to Steve Jobs. He cofounded and ran and ultimately saved Pixar. Why did you decide that this was something you should do?

SARAFIAN: I think we couldn't imagine not doing it. I mean, we lost Steve during production of this film, and our card at the end of the film says: Partner, mentor and friend. And he was all those things and more to us. And I think, you know, much is said about Steve and, you know, you can read all about him in books and things like that.

But I think there's nothing like working with him and knowing him directly, as we did. And he always used to tell us, make it great. Make it insanely great. And he saw the movie - early versions of it - and I sure wish that he'd be able to see it finished, because I want to believe he'd be really proud of us.

WERTHEIMER: Katherine Sarafian, Kelly Macdonald, thank you both very much.

SARAFIAN: Thank you.

MACDONALD: Thank you.

SARAFIAN: Thank you so much for having us.

WERTHEIMER: The movie "Brave" opens today. Linda Wertheimer, NPR News.

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