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'Brave:' A female hero unveiled

Merida talks to her siblings, triplets Harris, Hubert

Merida talks to her siblings, triplets Harris, Hubert and Hamish, as King Fergus and Queen Elinor look on in a scene from "Brave." Credit: Disney

Brace yourselves, hairdressers.

When the Celtic adventure "Brave" opens Friday, it could well mean a boon to Scottish tourism (co-promotions between Disney and Scotland are well under way). It also could mean an increased interest in archery -- the movie's plucky Princess Merida, after all, is a virtuoso of the bow and arrow.

But only heartbreak is in the cards for the untold pint-size hordes of blondes and brunettes who'll dream of sporting the same wilderness of red that tops Princess Merida's head. That kind of hair can only be gotten as a gift from God. Or the Pixar animation department.

Unfolding in a medieval Scotland of untamed wildlife, people and hair, "Brave" is the 13th feature for Pixar and the first to have a girl as its central character. "We've had female characters before, of course," said producer/Pixar vet Katherine Sarafian ("The Incredibles"), alluding to a list that would include, among others, Jessie the cowgirl ("Toy Story 2" and "3"), Violet of "The Incredibles" or the daffy Dory of "Finding Nemo." "But this is the first time we have one driving the action and taking the consequences."

Not surprisingly, Merida (voiced by Scots actress Kelly Macdonald) is feisty and independent, and naturally rebels when her mother the queen (Emma Thompson) mounts an inter-clan competition to select a husband for her daughter. Not surprisingly, the story line requires our characters to eventually acquire a certain degree of understanding, forgiveness and self-knowledge. But en route to all that serenity, Merida goes to epic lengths to remain unengaged, beating her suitors at their own game, engaging the services of a mysterious witch (Julie Walters), and causing the Highlands to resound with discord and incipient warfare.

Behind-the-scenes drama

The back story to "Brave" was certainly less violent, but nonetheless fraught with its own kind of peril. Brenda Chapman, who had been the first female director of an animated studio film ("The Prince of Egypt") had written and developed "Brave" and was set to direct (making her Pixar's first female director, and the first solo woman director of a major animated movie). She was subsequently fired from the project over "creative differences," although she retains her director credit alongside Mark Andrews. (Chapman could not be reached for comment, but apparently remains attached to Pixar.)

"There's a history of this happening at Pixar," said Sarafian, "and for that matter, a history of this happening throughout the history of filmmaking." It's certainly less than ideal that the first female-driven Pixar movie wouldn't have a woman at the helm. But Sarafian said that the creative process of animation, which takes years longer than live-action movies ("Brave" dates back to 2004), often requires a change of direction.

Besides, she said, Andrews had always been part of the film's "brain trust" and had even accompanied the team during early research trips to Scotland. And in addition to his being of Scottish persuasion, Andrews is a buff. Medieval Gaelic history is his meat and potatoes. Or haggis. Or whatever they eat over there. And he said he was able to imbue the film with an authentically mythical basis in folklore, tradition and symbolism.

More intricate, he said, is directing actors in a process that seems antithetical to the kind of chemistry audiences associate with the dramatic arts. Thompson and Macdonald, for instance, though they play mother and daughter, were never in the same room at the same time.

"Their argument," Andrews said of one pivotal scene, "was recorded separately, and months apart. So I'm the guy who has the key to what happened and what I think is going to happen. I have to build it in a way to get something organic out of it." Which means, he said, having the performers deliver line readings in various tones, moods and colors, so in the ultimate assemblage they all fit together and make emotional sense.

A token American

Amid a Scots-heavy cast that includes Thompson, comedian Billy Connolly (as Merida's father Lord Fergus), Kevin McKidd ("Grey's Anatomy"), Robbie Coltrane ("Harry Potter") and token American John Ratzenberger (whose voice has been in every Pixar film), Macdonald was the only one who'd never done animation.

"It wasn't like anything I'd ever done before and like anything you've never done before. It was a bit daunting," she said. "Because I also knew I couldn't get away with what I usually do." Which is, generally, playing very gentle characters, including the doomed Carla Jean Moss in "No Country for Old Men," and Margaret Schroeder of "Boardwalk Empire."

"I'd never played that kind of role before," she said of Merida. "She's feisty, she's a teenager, she's very strong and tomboyish. Mark would say, 'I love what you do, but this is animation. You have to do bigger."

Which she did, much to Andrews' satisfaction. Now, she's waiting to show the film to her 4-year-old son. She's not sure he'll recognize Mommy when he hears her voice. Frankly, she said, she got so involved while watching the film, "I forgot it was me within five minutes."

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