After movies about toys, cars and various cute animals, Pixar moves into more traditional territory with its latest film, princess tale Brave — but it was more complicated than you might expect.
The US studio, which has built its reputation on pioneering animation in films like Finding Nemo, the Toy Story franchise and Wall-E, took seven years to give birth to the movie, released Friday in North America.
That's a long time for the Scottish-themed project, reflecting headaches and twists, including a change of director from Disney and DreamWorks veteran Brenda Chapman to American Mark Andrews, making his feature directorial debut.
"Brenda came to Pixar for Cars, and I was here already, and whenever we would have a party I would wear my kilt," Andrews told AFP, referring to his Scottish background.
"I have a Scottish heritage. I've always been a history buff and a Middle Ages history buff and a lot of great stuff happened in Scotland. I just love all that stuff," he added.
But Pixar set itself a double challenge with Brave: to make a princess film — a genre defined for decades by its parent company Disney — and to give the film's central role to a female character, the first time it had done so.
"It's always a challenge. Having done stories for 20 years in the animation and live action industry, it doesn't matter what your character is, it's always a pain in the butt to figure out," he said.
"These characters, male or female, fish or lizard, it doesn't really matters. It's 'What is the message? How do I create sympathy for the audience?' That's always hard. In the essence of any character, gender is not an issue."
Brave follows the adventures of impetuous Princess Merida, voiced by Kelly MacDonald, a tomboy who rejects everything her family has planned for her, notably marrying one of the kingdom's clan heirs.
Determined to change the mind of her mother Elinor (Emma Thompson), she seeks the help of a witch, a reckless choice which unleashes unintended peril and forces her to spring into action to set things right.
Andrews had already been linked with the film when Chapman was in charge, as a consultant. But in late 2010 Pixar Chief Creative Officer John Lasseter announced that creative differences had arisen and a new director was needed.
"Brenda was developing, and I started being unofficially consulted on all things Scottish and medieval. They pick me as a resource. We had lunch with Brenda about Scotland, kings," he said.
He decided to stick with the direction she had taken, but give it his own stamp. "That honesty and that love for the period and the place that Brenda was cultivating would still remain. And I was fine with that.
"The pressure came with "Get that story right!'"
The movie centres on the relationship between mother and daughter, exploring the themes of transformation, accepting others and paying a price on the road to maturity.
For Andrews, the heart of the conflict between Merida and her mother was that "neither of them are listening and they want the other to listen," he said.
"They want the other one to give up everything because 'My way, obviously, is the right way'."
As with previous Pixar movies Brave sparkles with technical prowess, notably in Merida's explosive red locks, and in depicting the rugged Scottish landscape.
The studio hopes that the princess will help erase memories of its last offering, last year's Cars 2, which was panned by critics and made "only" $550-million worldwide, half of 2010's Oscar-winning Toy Story 3.