Entertainment & Arts

Can Brave reverse Disney box office fortunes?

The creative minds at Pixar studios, home to Toy Story and The Incredibles, and their partners Disney have travelled into the Highlands of mediaeval Scotland for their latest film Brave. But following the financial failure of their sci-fi feature John Carter, how much pressure is there for this new project to be a box office hit?

Image caption The courageous main character Merida (centre) is a skilled archer

Whether Brave's director Mark Andrews realises it or not, all eyes will be glued to the release of Pixar's newest film Brave this summer and not simply for its stunning animation.

The film, featuring the vocal talents of Billy Connolly, Emma Thompson and Boardwalk Empire's Kelly Macdonald, is being released by Walt Disney Pictures, still stinging from the below par performance of the live action sci-fi John Carter at the worldwide box office.

Andrews was involved in that one too, as a co-writer with director Andrew Stanton - another Pixar alumnus who wrote and directed the hits Finding Nemo and WALL-E.

"I just make the movie so that stuff is out of my hands, that's for the people up in Olympus, the gods," says Andrews.

"I'm just a wayward movie director trying to tell my story and get on in the world."

Disney has admitted that John Carter, based on the books of Tarzan author Edgar Rice Burroughs, will end up as a $200m (£126m) hole in its pocket.

"You know we all hope for a bazillion dollars at the box office but at the end of the day, John Carter was a great film," insists Andrews. "We're really proud of it and whatever happens with this, we all love it and we're going to be really proud of it."

However, the failure to create a John Carter "brand" which would have included sequels, toys and merchandise and rides at Disneyworld will inevitably weigh heavy on its executives.

"The unprofitability of John Carter is a very stressful problem for Disney," says UK box office expert Charles Gant.

"But it's also a little awkward for Pixar because Andrew Stanton would have been given so much freedom because of his reputation. He would have been very supported by very important people within the Disney hierarchy."

John Carter was the first of Disney's three big summer films, alongside The Avengers superhero movie and Brave.

"It does inevitably add pressure to Disney overall, they struck out with John Carter so they definitely need the other two movies to deliver," says Gant.

Brave is the tale of a feisty young Scottish princess - played by Macdonald - whose dreams of freedom are tempered by her loving but conformist mother, voiced by Thompson.

Macdonald - who first made her name in 1996's Trainspotting - landed the role after Oscar-winner Reese Witherspoon pulled out of the project due to work scheduling conflicts - one of several road bumps the production has already sufferedincluding the departureof the original director and co-writer Brenda Chapman.

Image caption Macdonald is Emmy and Golden Globe-nominated for the hit US drama Boardwalk Empire

Praising his leading lady as "fantastic", Andrews said: "Her voice has that great teenager quality."

And of course, she was born and bred in Scotland. As were the majority of the cast, which includes Robbie Coltrane, chat show host Craig Ferguson and Macdonald's Trainspotting co-star Kevin McKidd.

However unlike the dark comedy set in Edinburgh's drugs underworld, this film will not be subtitled for mid-western US audiences, according to Andrews.

"Kevin McKidd does the voices of Lord MacGuffin and young MacGuffin - who talks in the Doric dialect of his area," he says "and he would call his mum to remind him how to say certain things and we're going to leave it unintelligible because that's the gag."

Anyone who is familiar with the Doric tongue of the north-east of Scotland will be better prepared for the gag than others.

Brave's computer-generated sweeping shots of the hills and glens of Scotland are of the highest quality - the type expected of a studio which has won more than 25 Oscars.

Andrews insists that the secret of Pixar's success lies in the "research, research, research" philosophy of chief creative officer and fellow director John Lasseter.

"For Nemo, you're going to have to go underwater, Cars you need to know everything about cars and for Ratatouille we went to France," he explains with reference to the studio's past box office hits.

The result was several trips to Scotland spanning two months.

"We went everywhere from Edinburgh up into the highlands, the Isle of Skye, Lewis and Harris," says Andrews. "We went skinny dipping in lochs, we laid down in the heather, we climbed boulders, got stuck in the rain. It was fantastic."

Image caption Comedian Billy Connolly is one of the film's highest profile actors and plays the hulking yet gentle King Fergus

With the completed film still under wraps, one of the notable scenes shown to journalists takes place at a highland games where the sons of three noblemen compete for the hand in marriage of Merida.

One of the film's stars, Billy Connolly, is a patron of the Lonach Highland Gathering near his home in Aberdeenshire in north-east Scotland.

"We got a lot of information from Billy," says the director. "I'm of Scottish descent and I would have a mini-highland games on my birthday, we'd go to the park and I'd do the caber tossing so I was Pixar's unofficial games aficionado."

Of course, Hollywood's regular dalliances with Scotland have produced memorable, if not always historically accurate results.

Examples include the awful "Scotch" spoken in Brigadoon, Liam Neeson's strapping western-style cowboy loner in 1995's Rob Roy and Mel Gibson's blue painted and kilt wearing William Wallace.

Andrews admits liberties have been taken with stone-built castles and clan tartans (not really popularised until Walter Scott in the 18th Century).

But he defends the decision saying: "We (Andrews and Brenda Chapman) had such a love for Scotland and she just wanted a setting that was magical.

"We'd be arguing which exact period it was, but it's fantasy Scotland somewhere between the eighth and 12th Centuries. It was really a character of that time period we wanted."

The film will have its European premiere at the Edinburgh International Film Festival and Visit Scotland has been quick to seize upon the film's subject matter, ploughing around £7m into a tourism promotion tied in with Brave.

Sidestepping the political implications of a flag waving Scottish film so close to a referendum on independence, Andrews simply says: "What Braveheart did for Scotland in getting everybody there was great and it's great when we can help each other."

Brave is due out in the UK in August.

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