Poor Brave. It could have survived, and thrived, as just an animated family-friendly adventure movie. Instead, it has to be a Pixar movie, and not just a Pixar movie, but the Pixar movie that had to come out right after Cars 2 and prove one of two things, according to your tastes: either that Pixar had regained its footing after one and only one (but one extremely massive) artistic stumble, or that Pixar has officially settled into its role as a more technically accomplished marketing department for the Walt Disney Company to sell toys. Thus it it has gotten stuck in the one place that "awfully nice and deeply felt and extravagantly damn pretty but also a bit simplistic and certainly not a medium-defining masterpiece" could not survive being stuck, and so we've arrived at a place where nobody can bring themselves to simply talk about the film on its own terms, but only as a moment for reflection on the state of a studio that was, in very recent memory, the most reliable brand name in the modern history of Hollywood. And, heck, if I were all that concerned about this trend, surely I would have started my own review any other way. At the very least, this much has to be said, and said loudly: there is absolutely no excuse for considering Brave to be predictable or redundant or a sign of creative failure at a time when Madagascar 3 has opened to generally positive reviews.

The film was conceived by Brenda Chapman some years ago as an attempt to work out her feelings about motherhood, making this the first female-centric Pixar film not just in that it has a girl protagonist (which is, undeniably, an important first), but in that its themes and perspectives are somewhat more feminine than the rip-roaring boy's own adventures that have made up the bulk of the studio's output to this point, and also, depending on how you want to parse out a very knotty production history, it's the first Pixar film to have a woman share directorial duties, though the truth of this matter is hidden beneath some very defensive official credits: Mark Andrews and Chapman each get their own separate "directed by" card, with Steve Purcell receiving one of those "co-director" credits Pixar is so fond of that I've never entirely understood. And the screenplay is credited to Andrews, Purcell, Chapman and Irene Mecchi, in exactly that order with exactly those commas. So whatever the hell happened (Chapman was at one point said to have been taken off the project entirely owing to all-encompassing "creative differences", which many of us supposed to mean that Pixar is still something of a boys' club), Brave is not necessarily a movie that, in its current state, has a single artistic vision backing it up, and this might be all the reason that it can't muster itself up to the studio's top tier, quality-wise. For there is, alas, no denying that the movie takes an awfully long time finding a tone that it wants to stick with, and so we have broad physical comedy matched with winsome, sugary sentiment and vigorous swashbuckling, with all of it playing against the backdrop of fantastic mythic adventure, and the marriage of all these different modes is nowhere remotely near as effortless as the comic/tragic slurry of Toy Story 3 or the adventure/domestic drama of Up, for example.

That said, Brave is still very much about one thing, and that thing is still the central concept that Chapman first had in mind: the difficulties of a mother-daughter relationship. Not a subject that gets much airtime in American cinema, to say nothing of American cartoons for the broadest possible audience. The film takes place in Scotland sometime in the early Middle Ages, though it pointedly doesn't make precise dating possible (references to viking raids suggest the 8th or 9th Century, the inevitably omnipresent kilts would make it the 16th), where several local clans have been united under the throne of King Fergus (Billy Connolly, almost as inevitable as the kilts). At this time, the king's daughter, Merida (Kelly Macdonald) is just about at the right age to be married off, and Fergus and his domineering wife Elinor (Emma Thompson, stealing the whole movie as a voice just as thoroughly as she does in live action) have arranged that it shall be to one of the lords whose fealty to Fergus's crown is never more than tenuous at best. Merida, however, has absolutely no interest in being told what to do just because she's a princess, and from there, well...

It's a princess movie, all right, but complaints of Pixar taking marching orders from its marketing-crazed overseers at Disney are wildly misplaced. For one, Chapman's central idea has its genesis in the 2005-2006 corridor when relations between the two companies was at its lowest. And two (owing perhaps in part to one), Brave is in its way as much of a challenge to the Disney princess paradigm as DreamWorks Animation's Shrek franchise, albeit from a considerably different angle. For while the central motif of the Disney princess film that Disney wants you to think about is "headstrong girl wants to forge her own path", a much more suitable candidate is "headstrong girl falls madly in love with a cardboard prince and abandons her entire history in order to attain him" and in this, Brave could not be a stronger or more pronounced kiss-off to the corporate overlords. There is not a whisper of heteronormative pair-bonding in the conclusion to Brave's drama; not only does Merida end up quite single and quite happy about it, she's managed by the end to convince the rest of the cast that she's absolutely in the right for it. No indeed, the central dynamic here is mother and daughter, to the active exclusion of everything else.

Given that change, sure, the plot dynamic is roughly the same, marrying the Disney princess formula to the Pixar adventure formula with uncertain results - it requires two separate climaxes, one emotional and one physical, and the second of these doesn't feel as well-earned as it might - but whatever combination of Andrews, Chapman, and Purcell is responsible for pacing does a magnificent job of keeping the pace quick and the energy high without ever dropping into mania; by the time the mid-film plot twist shows up (a good one, and not exactly a surprise, but since the convention has emerged that we treat it as a spoiler, I will mention only that it ties Brave in with traditional European folklore in a manner that I find to be spectacularly effective, while also giving Julie Walters a terrific cameo as a bear-obsessed witch and woodcarver), the film seems to have just barely started, and it ends long before it starts to strain even with its tonal inconsistencies and duplicate climaxes. It's a gleefully entertaining adventure movie, in short, and what it lacks in cunning it makes up for in sincerity and crisply defined but still archetypal central characters.

There is, at last, the issue of how the thing looks, which is: nothing short of sublime. Catch me in a good mood, and I'd call it the most straight-up gorgeous animated movie since Disney's 1959 Sleeping Beauty; in a more objective state, I would see fit to drop it below The Lion King and a handful of Studio Ghibli pictures, at least. But we're still talking top-shelf, "oh my God, that is beautiful" design and animation here: the Scottish Highlands are one of those locations impossible to screw up on film, and that apparently extends to the Scottish Highlands as rendered in a computer as well, or at least the Pixar computers that have in the past few years hit the point where it seems that human imagination, and not technical proficiency, is the only limit to how amazing their films can look. Brave doesn't push the bar for the studio (though if there's any farther for the bar to go after WALL·E, I can't imagine where that might be). We have all the usual suspects: fog-shrouded standing stones and deep green valleys, profoundly grey stormy skies and burning sunsets that make your eyes water with pleasure (Danielle Feinberg, Pixar's in-house lighting specialist, remains one of the studio's great assets who never gets her due, probably because "director of photography" is a weird and counter-intuitive credit in animation). That plus the excellent character design - only Pixar's second human-driven movie after The Incredibles, Brave doesn't up the realism from that film so much as re-direct the style into something softer and paler, everything round where The Incredibles was supremely angular - and we have a movie that is wonderful to look at and behold, from the sun glowing on Merida's out-of-control red hair to the show-offy rainstorm that is one of the best things I've seen in 3-D all year. And sure, maybe it's more beauty for beauty's sake than beauty that necessarily contributes to the film's narrative, but I have long since reached a point where a movie that makes my breath stop because of how damned lovely it is not something I care to take for granted.