PIXAR’S latest offering just might be the most effective advert the Scottish tourist board could wish for... and there’s not a shred of romance in sight, says Siobhan Synnot
‘YOU’RE pish!” Not an early review of Brave, but one of the many firsts achieved by Disney’s medieval swords-and-arrows movie. This is the first Pixar picture to offer a little girlpower by placing an impetuous, flame-haired Scottish princess at the heart of one of its films, instead of a cowboy, a talking robot or a car. It’s also Pixar’s first fairytale, its first movie set in the past (Scotland between the 8th and 10th centuries), and the first Disney princess movie to ditch the idea of a handsome prince waiting in the wings.
To Scottish ears, this is also the first American family feature film to showcase certain prized examples of modern Scottish vernacular. In an archery contest, a bowman loads, aims... and misses. “You’re pish,” someone clearly opines from the crowd. If nothing else, Brave may help bridge the language gap that has sometimes confounded overseas visitors. Elsewhere, Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson) complains of “dreadful collywobbles” and although no-one suggests that her daughter is a gallus besom, Brave’s co-director Mark Andrews admits to having fallen in love with the lingua Scotia. “Billy Connolly provided us with a lot of information,” he observes drily. So much so that when Andrews went on a fact-finding tour, he couldn’t resist challenging his guide with his latest addition to his Scottish vocabulary by suggesting, “Square go?” Alas, the man was a former SAS soldier, and Andrews claims he received a kick in the Trossachs for his cheek.
As Brave takes aim at the box-office this summer, three groups badly need its archer heroine to hit the bullseye. Disney have been hurt by John Carter’s failure to become the Avatar of Mars, and a distinct lack of enthusiasm for Pixar’s last offering, Cars 2. By premiering Brave in June as their closing film, the Edinburgh International Film Festival is hoping to regain a little of its old lustre. Meanwhile the Scottish Tourist Board is crossing its fingers that a picture tie-in to the sylvan, sensuous settings of Brave will re-energise Scotland overseas as a holiday destination.
Already, the promotional train is on track both here and in America. Disney have announced Princess Merida and her three bears will be a new attraction at Disneyparks California this summer, and in Scotland this week, Merida also became the wilful face on the pack of a brand of Scottish potatoes and carrots.
Having viewed the first 34 minutes of Brave, the good news for VisitScotland is that the Highlands do indeed look lush and inviting, with landscapes more authentically Scottish than the Ireland of Braveheart or the painted rocks of Brigadoon. In fact, the steaming lochs, pine forests and even the midges look fantastic. Special plot prominence is given to the Callanish Stones, while the princess’s favourite steed is a handsome Clydesdale horse called Angus. Most noticeably of all, in the whole opening half hour, it never rains once.
Such Scotch myths abound in Brave; no haggis is hunted, but it does appear on the breakfast table with neeps – and is disdained by Merida’s young triplet brothers. The clans never back off from a fight and there are bagpipes and kilts aplenty. And since there are kilts, inevitably there is also a mooning incident, although as a family film King Fergus’s bahookie is kept off-camera. Scottish menfolk wear tartan (not then, they didn’t), the royal family live in a stone castle (about as likely as central heating circa 9AD) and judging from the accents, just about everyone is from the Kingdom of Strathclyde.
“Doesn’t matter,” says co-director Mark Andrews. “Just go with it.” Brave isn’t history, it’s a fairytale and at least he and the film’s original director Brenda Chapman immersed themselves in research. Andrews became Pixar’s in-house expert on matters medieval and Scottish. “I cared whether they had one-handed or two-handed swords,” he says. “I’d say ‘They didn’t have crossbows back then!’” Pixar teams including Chapman and Andrews made two extensive trips, touring Scotland from Edinburgh to Skye, lying in heather, skinnydipping in lochs then weaving their way back to lodgings after experimenting with whisky.
The subsequent sidelining of Chapman remains Brave’s biggest controversy. The story supervisor for The Lion King and one of three co-directors on Dreamworks’ Prince of Egypt, Chapman was touted as Pixar’s first fully-fledged female director, and Brave was her baby, after she pitched an idea called The Bear and The Bow to Pixar’s boss John Lasseter in 2004. There would be a rebellious princess, a witch and a curse. Also a benevolent king and his Hillary Clintonesque queen.
However, one fairy-tale element would not make the happy ever after. “No prince,” declared Chapman in her mission statement. “This is a love story/battle between mother and daughter – researched with my own.” A princess with no need of a prince? Now that is brave.
Officially Chapman departed last year amidst hushed talk of time delays and creative differences, and under Andrews, Brave is said to have become more boy-friendly, applying more bows and bears. Still, the tangle-tressed heroine remains the focus, making Brave even hairier than Braveheart: “Bravehair was one of our working titles,” confirms Andrews.
Andrews is part Scots himself, claiming the Ross tartan for his Friday kilt-wearing tradition, but it was Chapman who pushed for Scotland as an identifiable location, rather than opting for a generic European backdrop. And it was Chapman who campaigned for Billy Connolly to play King Fergus, ushering in a voice cast that is now almost entirely Scottish, with none of that Canadian-pretending-to-be-Shrek nonsense. Kelly Macdonald took over as the voice of Merida after Reese Witherspoon abdicated, citing a busy schedule. “It’s like being asked to voice Woody,” says Macdonald “I didn’t really think about it at the time because it happened pretty quickly but it’s kind of scary.”
Brave also reunites Macdonald with Kevin McKidd for the first time since Trainspotting in 1996. The Rome star has a dual role in Brave, playing both Young McGuffin, one of three unsuitable suitors competing for Merida’s hand in marriage, and his father. Although unintelligible to everyone except his father, McGuffin is at least more amenable than the older, grumpier Lord Dingwall (Robbie Coltrane), while the Braveheartily woad-soaked Lord Macintosh (Craig Ferguson) appears to be styled by Picts and more paranoid than the 1950s.
“Young McGuffin is a lovely guy,” says McKidd “but his accent is so strong that no-one can work out what he’s saying and his father has to translate. My kids are unbelievably excited that I’m in a Pixar movie, and I’m proud to be in a film that’s going to shout from the rooftops what an awesome place Scotland is. This actually means a lot to me.”
Accents have been a question mark for Brave, given that Bill Forsyth’s Gregory’s Girl and Ken Loach’s Sweet Sixteen had to be screened with subtitles, and occasionally a glossary sheet. Pixar executive producer Jim Morrison admits that from the early stages, there were debates about where to put a glottal stop on the Scottishisms. “The studio have been terrified about the accents, so we did a studio preview,” he says. “But when the focus group were asked about the accents, they said “Oh, they were great!”
“It’s a huge relief that even a regular American audience was very embracing of them.” Even so, American press have been offered a crash course in Scottishness. A press junket this week in San Francisco offered a preview of the film, a chance to meet the filmmakers but also a Kilts 101 lecture on Scottishness, The History, Culture & Adornment of the Tartan, plus So You Think You Can Bagpipe. Even so, the message may have some way to go before Brave replaces Braveheart as a Caledonian calling card.
“Can’t wait for Brave” wrote one fan on a Disney messageboard this week. “I love Pixar, I have red hair, and I’m Irish.”
• Brave closes the Edinburgh International Film Festival on 30 June, and is on general release from 17 August