Pixar is still putting the finishing touches on its Scotland-set, female-centered, arrow-flinging fantasy film Brave, but we got a sneak peek at the movie's first 30 minutes. We can't give you any spoilers, but we can tell you this: It's going to be one gorgeous movie.
Pixar screened a rough first third of the movie for the press this week. Some of the lighting on a handful of shots wasn't complete, and we were told the sound mixing wasn't finished (although it sounded lovely to my untrained ears), but it's incredible how much detail is present in each and every frame.
The hair is certainly the immediate "wow" factor for the movie. It's so red and curly, and it practically radiates, against the lush greenery of the highland setting. And it's no small achievement; an incredible amount of work went into getting the gravity and behavior of the hair just right. There are 111,700 total hairs on Merida's head, and they spring and move much like real hair would. But there are other technological achievements that shouldn't get the short shrift. The fabrics have moved far beyond The Incredibles's skin-tight outfits. (Sorry, Edna Mode, but you've been ousted as Pixar's greatest fashion designer.) Woven fabrics look like they've been through a digital loom, and those tartan kilts are several yards of digital fabric wrapped and tucked to Braveheart warrior perfection. Gone are the plastic costumes. Long live plaid.
And the grass. As someone who spent most of Avatar enamored with the plants in the background, I could compose odes to Brave's grass, moss, and lichen. The goal, director Mark Andrews and producer Katherine Sarafian emphasized time and again in talking to reporters, was to capture Scotland, to push the movie beyond the bounds of a generic European medieval setting. I can't say whether the grand forests beyond Merida's home is peculiar to the Scottish highlands, but I can say that, when the DVD comes out, I'll be slow-moing the places where the wind rustles the grass. Yes, virtual plants make my heart flutter.
As for the content, Brave promises to be neither a princess movie, nor an anti-princess movie. Merida is a princess, and that's not an incidental detail. But she doesn't live in a Disneyland castle; she lives in a rustic keep, and her royal life is appropriately unglamorous. We get a lot of her home life, which is refreshing — how often do you see a fantasy protagonist with two living (and relatively happy) parents? These early scenes are delightful: funny where they should be, and filled with texture. You can tell that these were carefully honed scenes, ones in which the film's various writers and producers sought to reveal as much about Merida's world as possible without overstuffing. And there's a complex mother-daughter dynamic at the heart of it all. I've had the same fights with my mother as Merida has with hers, but ours were about grad school rather than life in 9th-century Scotland.
Merida herself will also be a delight to spend 90 minutes with. Andrews told us that Merida's character was a difficult one to nail down; they wanted her likable but flawed — without being a foot-stomping teenager. She comes off as more spirited than impetuous; Merida clearly has a strong will, but it comes from a powerful sense of self that hasn't yet been tempered by a sense of how her choices impact the wider world. She also plays off her family members with wit and charm, as we see in the archery competition scene released back in February.
Perhaps the greatest endorsement for Brave is that, when our allotted time was up, and the screen went black, all the press folks in the room let out a collective, "Awwww." We were sad that we weren't getting more of Merida's story — at least not for a while.
Aside from the texture, the characters, and that hair, the thing you'll be talking about most when you leave the theater? La Luna, the short film that will play before Brave. We did see a final cut of La Luna, and nothing has ever made me feel so profoundly that I was watching an Italo Calvino story brought to life. I can't wait to see it again in June.