"Welcome to Scotland!" John Lasseter says in a booming voice that matches his enthusiasm for Pixar Animation Studios' new film, Brave. "Isn't this fantastic?"
Lasseter, the creative heart of Pixar and the man who runs the animation departments at both Pixar and Disney, is wearing a Hawaiian shirt, as always. But no kilt. "A guy was willing to make me a kilt out of Hawaiian shirt material," Lasseter confesses when I tease him about the possibility of giving his signature look a Scottish twist. But he soon realized it would look more like the billowing moo moo his grandmother used to wear. Argh! Lasseter switched tactics, leaning towards tradition.
"So we did a special tartan. They're registering the official tartan for the family in Brave -- the DunBroch family."
Despite the honour of getting an officially recognized tartan, the DunBrochs are part of a fictional clan in this Scottish fairytale story. But they are at the heart of it all. The made-up saga originated seven years with original Brave director Brenda Chapman, who based it on the tempestuous relationship she had with her own teenaged daughter. That notion morphed into a medieval fantasy revolving around a teenaged heroine who rebels against her mother, a Scottish queen. Chapman was eventually replaced by co-director Mark Andrews, although Chapman's name remains in the credits.
This is a ground-breaking film for the upstart studio which revolutionized the art of digital animation by creating Toy Story in 1995. Pixar was so successful that Disney swallowed the company up in what turned into a complex, multi-billion dollar merger in 2006. Brave, with its medieval setting and magical adventure, is Pixar's first fairytale. It is also the first Pixar feature to revolve around a feminine protagonist. "It's our first period film, too, because it's set in an historical time," Lasseter says. "The Incredibles was quasi-period. It had a mid-century modern feel to it, whereas everything else has been fairly contemporary."
Meanwhile, for the first time in 25 years, Pixar also launched an entirely fresh operating system for its digital animation computers. Artistically and technically, Lasseter says, Brave is a new beginning.
"I'm always looking for what's different," he says. "Part of it is to challenge ourselves, you know, so it's just something fun, something we've never done before. Seven years ago, when we started on this project, I was noticing that the animations studios all around the world -- especially in Hollywood -- were kind of turning their backs on the sincere fairytale. Everyone in Hollywood especially became very, very cynical, making fun of everything. And I'm not like that. Pixar's not like that. So I got very excited: 'Well, if nobody else is going to do a fairytale, that's something different for us -- a Pixar fairytale.' "
Brave tells the story of a tomboy princess named Merida (the voice of Scottish actress Kelly Macdonald). She is the rebel who resists the marriage plans concocted by her stern if loving mother, Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson). She has more in common with her wild warrior father, King Fergus (Billy Connolly), who admires the girl's spunk, spirit and ability as an archer. When Merida encounters a forest witch and asks for a spell to transform her mother, things go terribly wrong. Despite a trailer that makes it seem like just a cartoon comedy, Brave is a rousing blend of adventure, fantasy, humour and real pathos.
"I felt really lucky to be Scottish," Macdonald says of her heritage. While best known for American projects -- the Coen Brothers' masterpiece No Country for Old Men and the HBO series Boardwalk Empire -- Macdonald was born in Glasgow 36 years ago. "If it had been an American story, you think of all the American actresses who would have been vying for the role. There are a lot of Scottish actresses but they're aren't as many, so I think I lucked out."
Macdonald was "the last piece in the puzzle," the final actor cast. The Scottish flavour of the story helped her out. "I can relax in a certain way when it's my own accent," Macdonald says. "It takes the pressure off."
While animation voice work for animation was still daunting -- Macdonald is a first-timer -- finding the voice was easy. "I think I was able to flip into my teenage self again," she says with a grin, "which is kind of horrifying!"
The character of Princess Merida is unlike any of the Disney princesses, Macdonald says. "I was joking that, when there is a Merida at Disneyland (for one of the famous parades), I hope she is at the back of the line of princesses dragging herself along, rolling her eyes, and wanting to be somewhere else!"
That is part of Merida's appeal: She is not waiting for her prince to sweep her off her feet. She has her own adventures. Macdonald herself idolized the real-life character of Calamity Jane when growing up in Scotland. The famous American was a flamboyant character from the Old West -- and the focus of several movies herself, including a Hollywood musical. As a child, Macdonald dressed up like her on Halloween. Now she sees a parallel to Merida in Brave, although the cartoon character is beautiful and dramatic, with her head of fiery red hair. Calamity Jane was homely and unkempt.
"They're quite similar," Macdonald says of their spirit of adventure. "And they're not like me. I'm not an outdoorsy person or a tomboy. But, yeah, that's what appealed to me when I was younger. I would go out and pretend to be on a horse all the time. I knew all the lines (from the Hollywood musical) and I would act it out to myself."
Decades later, her childhood obsession has worked itself into something magical, a Pixar fairytale with a chance to be a huge hit. "I think it's a privilege," Macdonald says. "Somebody else has done all the hard work and I get to do the cool girl in the film!"
Pixar movie classics:
John Lasseter, who built Pixar into an artistic powerhouse, says his team is restless. "We're a studio of pioneers and everyone at Pixar loves a challenge, doing something that no one else has ever done before." In that spirit, we survey the dozen animated features before Brave:
Toy Story (1995): This game-changer may seem quaint now but nothing was ever going to be the same again in animation. It earned three Oscar noms, won a special achievement Academy Award, and generated $362 million worldwide (according to Box Office Mojo).
A Bug's Life (1998): This lesser flick still earned one Oscar nom and $363 million.
Toy Story 2 (1999): The sequel charmed and advanced the technology, earning one Oscar nom. Boxoffice jumped to $485 million.
Monsters, Inc. (2001): This wonderful children's fantasy won an Oscar, earned three other noms, and took in $525 million. The prequel, Monsters University, arrives in 2013.
Finding Nemo (2003): Captivating children with its rescue story, it was the first Pixar film to win the as best animated feature, along with three other Oscar noms. Boxoffice was a staggering $868 million, still second for Pixar.
The Incredibles (2004): Brad Bird's unique take on the superhero mythos won two Oscars, including as best animated feature, plus two other noms. It took in $631 million.
Cars (2006): Lasseter's ode to the automobile is a boy's fantasy that earned two Oscar noms and $462 million.
Ratatouille (2007): Bird rescued a failure and triumphed with five Oscar noms, winning as best animated feature. It generated $624 million.
WALL-E (2008): With its eco-activist robot charming all ages, the movie earned six Oscar noms, winning as best animated feature. Boxoffice hit $521 million.
Up (2008): Utterly enthralling, this adventure saga won two Oscars, including as best animated feature, with three other noms. One was as best picture, a Pixar first. Boxoffice impressed with $731 million.
Toy Story 3 (2010): People laughed and cried. This marvellous movie won two Oscars, including as best animated feature. Four noms included another best picture nod. With a boxoffice of $1.063 billion, it holds the Pixar record.
Cars 2 (2011): Remains the only Pixar feature without an Oscar nom. But it did take $560 million worldwide, despite Pixar's first sour reviews.