June 18, 2012

‘Brave’ turns Kelly Macdonald into a princess — and a pioneering Pixar female protagonist

The animated 'Brave' stars Kelly Macdonald as Merida, a rebellious Scottish princess.
Once upon a time, Kelly Macdonald was a wee lass growing up in Glasgow, Scotland, with no desire to be a princess like the other girls.

She was more fixated on becoming Calamity Jane, the rifle-toting American frontierswoman played by Doris Day in the 1953 movie of the same name.

"Princesses were not really my thing," says the 36-year-old actress in her Scottish burr. "I would go around pretending I was on my horse. I was such a tomboy looking back."

So voicing Merida, the reluctant princess-turned-warrior in Pixar's latest offering, "Brave," has been exactly her kind of fairy tale.

The animated film opens Friday. In the Disney release, the rebellious redheaded teenager is determined to flout hundreds of years of tradition and dodge an arranged marriage that would guarantee the stability of her father's (Billy Connolly) Highlands kingdom. She runs afoul of her strict mother, Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson), who’s determined to squash her daughter's wild streak.

Seeking a way out, Merida turns to a witch in the forest (Julie Walters) for a spell that will force her mother to change, a task the sorceress takes a little too literally, with disastrous consequences.

Kelly Macdonald, whose career began with 'Trainspotting,' is currently filming the third season of 'Boardwalk Empire.'


But Merida isn't just the latest in a long line of animated Disney princesses that includes Snow White and Cinderella. She’s a pioneer. For Pixar, the home of boys favorites like Buzz Lightyear and Wall*E, Merida marks the first protagonist aimed at girls.

(Macdonald, though, is quick to point out her 3-year-old son happily plays with his Merida doll.)

"Disney has this heavily trod ground of princesses and we knew that we didn’t want somebody who was questing for happily ever after," says co-director Mark Andrews. "We wanted her to solve her own problem and be who she is, and not have anyone else define her.

"If we have this very traditional setting, where back then you would get hitched because the parents or the kings told you to keep the peace and it has nothing to do with love, you can't have this milquetoast character that's just going, ‘Okay, prince, please come and save me.'

"We needed somebody who was going to fight back."

That somebody was originally going to be Reese Witherspoon. Scheduling conflicts forced the "Water for Elephants" actress to drop out. After a long search, Andrews and co-director Brenda Chapman zeroed in on Macdonald.

And Macdonald zeroed in on the tug of war between Merida and her mother, each too proud and headstrong to listen to the other.
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