The highland hijinks of Pixar's latest

Pixar is releasing its first film with a female protagonist, says Geoffrey Macnab

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The Independent Culture

Mark Andrews is just back from a whistle-stop trip to Edinburgh and Inverness. The American director of the new Pixar movie Brave was introducing the film to Scottish audiences for the first time – a daunting prospect given that Brave is set in the Highlands in the 10th century and is full of bagpipe music, jokes about kilts and references to haggis.

"Well, they got all of our jokes!" Andrews says, clearly relieved.

"The things the Americans don't laugh at, the Scots laughed at," his producer Katherine Sarafian says. "It was a lovely reception... we wanted to do right by Scotland."

Brave is Pixar's first film to feature a female protagonist. This is Merida, the flame-haired princess (voiced by Kelly Macdonald) who is far too rebellious to accept her mother's plans to marry her off. It also would have been Pixar's first movie to be directed by a woman... if Brenda Chapman hadn't been fired in late 2010 over what she told The Los Angeles Times were "creative differences". Chapman, who wrote the original story on which Brave is based and retains her director's credit, was conspicuous by her absence when the Pixar team rolled into Britain to launch the movie.

"We fail as a company if we plateau. If we're not constantly pushing ourselves or looking round that next bend or if we're comfortable, we've done our audience a disservice," Andrews says.

Both Sarafian and Andrews insist that they are not worried about box-office success. "If we were concerned primarily about box-office success, we would never have greenlit films about a rat that likes to cook in Paris or one about an old man and a wilderness explorer taking a house up in a balloon. These are things you can't sell toys [through]. These are not easy fits in people's minds," Sarafian says, referring to Ratatouille, Up, Toy Story, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Monsters, Inc. et al.

Brave was given the go-ahead by its founder and benign patriarch John Lasseter and his fellow members of the "Pixar Brains Trust", a mini-council of top animators who decide what the studio will do next.

"He [Lasseter] was so enthused about Pixar doing what he called a 'sincere fairy-tale'. It's not a joke," Sarafian says. "We are trying to honour this folk-tale genre but to do it in a completely new way and make it about a family relationship rather than a romantic love story."

A director like Andrews knows that Lasseter isn't just his boss and collaborator – he's also the first audience. "If he [Lasseter] is laughing or crying or on the edge of his seat, then I know it is succeeding."

Brave is dedicated to the late Steve Jobs, the Apple boss who died last year (and co-founded the studios). The Steve Jobs that Sarafian and Andrews describe isn't the overbearing visionary that we know from other accounts. "He saw Brave. He loved that we were making it. We are very sad that he didn't get to see the final version of it," Sarafian says.

The Apple boss knew that he wasn't an expert on animation and deferred to the knowledge of his collaborators. All he ever told them was "make it insanely great".

In parts, Brave does seem derivative. The scenes in the forests, especially those in which Merida runs away and meets the grizzled old witch (Julie Walters), are reminiscent of the animation in some of the Japanese animated films by Hayao Miyazaki. Some of the Highland warriors can't help but rekindle memories of Mel Gibson's followers in Braveheart, baring their bums at the English oppressors. Scenes of carousing in the Great Hall are in the vein of Errol Flynn's Robin Hood.

The PR campaign for the new film is aggressive and unrelenting. Sarafian and Andrews, who've already been on a long promotional tour, are careful to stay "on message" throughout the interview. They parry questions about the large number of viewers in the US who've avoided the 3D version of Brave to watch it on 2D instead. (Box-office analysts see this as evidence that audiences are becoming disillusioned with 3D.) They're enthusiastic about their voice actors. Andrews pays effusive tribute to Macdonald's performance: "She [Merida] is a teenager and nobody really likes teenagers because they are selfish and whiny. We were having trouble making her likeable... as soon as Kelly came on and started doing the voice, with that quirkiness, her sense of humour, that attitude she brought to it and that vulnerability, [we thought] that character is great."

'Brave' is released on 17 August. 'Brave: the Video Game' is out now