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Just what’s so brave about ‘Brave’?

by Tavish Nanda and Kai Harada

Staff Writers

“Wall-E” was a brave endeavor. A kids’ film where the main character can’t speak: That must have been a hard sell, and a risk in itself. But it paid off, creating one of the most emotionally charged films of 2008. “Wall-E” taught a moral lesson about our consumerist behavior; a lesson that transcended international borders and was received worldwide.

This was yet another success in the eclectic and successful repertoire that makes up Pixar’s short history. After changing the way we interpret our childhood playthings with “Toy Story” then reinventing the idea of the superhero with “The Incredibles,” Pixar has been breaking trends with big-picture thinking and well-placed creativity. And with “Brave,” which opens this weekend, the studio is at it again.

Today’s princesses aren’t the love-hungry damsels they used to be, and the movie’s lead character, Princess Merida, redefines those old ideas of a princess in a world of fairy tale. She’s fiercely independent, rebellious and wild, characterized by her rambunctious self-expression and frizzy red hair. “It’s a coming-of-age film,” producer Katherine Sarafian tells The Japan Times.

As medieval Scottish tradition apparently holds, teenage Merida must wed the son of one of three clan leaders in order to continue the truce that holds the Scottish nation together, a duty she fears will stifle her free spirit. Distraught, Merida clashes with her mother like any rebellious teen would, and casts a spell to change her fate: a spell that goes terribly wrong, threatening to destroy her family and Scotland itself.

In comparison with previous Pixar films, “Brave” has been accused of falling short in both creativity and imagination. While the creative team did place a lot of emphasis on detail — from the single strands of Merida’s hair to using real Scots (or at least Brits) for character voices, such as Kelly Macdonald as Merida and Billy Connolly as King Fergus — the story lacks the transcendent flights of fantasy we’re used to from “Wall-E” or “Monsters, Inc.”

Sarafian, however, isn’t concerned. She admits the high caliber of Pixar films has set the bar high, but she argues that “Brave” is different, because it is less about the external adventure and more about internal discovery.

“You can shoot arrows at bears, you can wield a sword and go into battle, and those things may seem brave, but they’re not nearly as brave as the kind of courage you need to have to be who you are,” she says.

And while the creative risks taken by other Pixar films may have seemed more challenging, Sarafian emphasizes the creative effort that was put into each character’s relationship, something that perhaps more recalls the classics of Pixar’s new-ish owner, Disney.

“It’s easier to create an outside villain,” she says. “Having (Merida) conquer her own issues, fixing her own relationship, is harder to do story-wise, and a more brave thing to do in our opinion. It’s a gutsy move.”

“Brave” has already become the box-office No. 1 in the United States since it opened there last month. But how will it fare in Japan? Will that central internal conflict and the quest for self-expression keep local audiences glued to their seats? While Sarafian sees the universality of the family unit and teenage rebellion transcending cultural barriers, it’s hard to say.

“Many have come up to me and said they’ve felt it’s about their own culture,” says Sarafian.

“Brave” still risks missing its mark in Japan, where teenage drama and loud-mouthed individuality are less accepted behavioral traits than they are in the States. For some parents here, the film may teach a lesson they don’t want their kids to learn: rebellion.

But on the other hand, to many looking in from outside, breaking from tradition is an important step toward ending Japan’s decline on the global stage, and a film that preaches individuality and independence, especially for women, may not be a bad thing.

One thing’s for sure, the inclusion of AKB48 member Yuko Oshima as the voice of Merida in the Japanese dub will attract plenty of fans.

“I really like Disney movies and I’ve seen all of them,” Oshima said at a recent press conference for the film, where she was joined by Sarafian and director Mark Andrews. “It feels like I’m meeting with great people who have a significant place in history, and I respect them very much.”

Just like Merida, AKB48 has found success through bending traditions, though Sarafian says that was not the reason for Oshima’s inclusion. She says the choice was based more on Oshima’s “great, charming, almost teenage spirit,” rather than a lunge for publicity.

It also helps that Oshima is handy with a horse — although Merida’s on-screen equestrian ability is handled by Pixar’s trademarked (and evolved) CG animation, Oshima mounted a horse at the press conference and said that her riding experience when she was 12 had helped her to relate to her character.

“I fell off a horse once, and so does Merida in the movie — so it ended up being a useful reference,” she laughed.

At any rate, Oshima’s involvement is sure to draw the younger Japanese generation, particularly the very girls who may identify with Merida’s feelings of conflict.