Though a definite improvement over the bitterly disappointing Cars 2, 2012’s Brave is destined to be a polarising movie. While visually majestic and fun, it lacks the innovation and sophistication that Pixar is renowned for, leaving us with an enjoyable but formulaic effort that fails to linger or resonate. It’s perfectly fine at surface level, but Brave is seldom remarkable, as the filmmakers were clearly more concerned with energy and fantasy than mature thematic density or humanity. This is the cruel paradox of Pixar: because they set the bar so high and established themselves as the pinnacle of animation excellence, a merely decent movie from the studio feels like a letdown. Brave isn’t terrible – it’s just not as good as one might want it to be. Call it the peril of high expectations.

In the highlands of 10th Century Scotland, ginger-haired princess Merida (Macdonald) is next in line for the throne of Clan DunBroch, but yearns for the freedom to do whatever she wants with her life. While King Fergus (Connolly) and Queen Elinor (Thompson) push for Merida to get married as soon as possible, the adventurous young princess prefers to spend time roaming the forest alone practising her archery skills. When members of nearby clans begin to compete for Merida’s hand, the rebellious girl ends up having a shouting match with her mother, ending with Merida fleeing into the woods to escape her destiny. Led deep into the forest by ghostly blue lights, Merida happens upon an old cottage where she meets a witch (Walters). Sensing the chance to change her fate, Merida asks for a spell to make her mother back off. But the spell ends up backfiring, and Merida is left struggling to undo her reckless mistake before the consequences become permanent.

With a princess in the lead, Brave is the closest thing to a typical Disney movie that Pixar has ever produced. Wisely, the writers abstained from conventions like the proverbial wicked stepmother and a prince/princess relationship, instead exploring the complicated bond between a headstrong but loving mother and her stubborn daughter. But Brave‘s storytelling and structure is wobbly and rote, which is baffling since Pixar is so revered for its commitment to quality storytelling. The film simply does not traverse enough new ground, and this is all the more disappointing considering that other Pixar veterans might have been able to do something more audacious with this premise. The biggest missed opportunity is the witch. Here was Pixar’s chance to create a truly unforgettable Disney villain, but the witch is never heard from again after she casts the spell. (As a matter of fact, there is no villain.) Basically, Brave reeks of “committee screenwriting” – there was no singular vision, as three writers were involved in penning the film. So while one writer might have aimed for a mature relationship between Merida and her mother, another writer insisted upon a fluffy montage set to upbeat music to lazily convey the characters’ growing bond.

Brave‘s midsection flirts dangerously with DreamWorks sensibilities, ditching sophisticated Pixar humour and creativity in favour of goofy slapstick and derivative gags. Make no mistake, there are a few strokes of Pixar genius here (everything involving Merida’s cheeky little brothers is utterly brilliant), but they are in short supply. Also, the usual zing of Pixar’s dialogue is missing. Brave features a cast of lovely, sparkling Scottish accents, yet the dialogue they regurgitate is painfully perfunctory.

On a more positive note, however, the picture looks expectedly excellent. Medieval Scotland was meticulously created by the Pixar team, who rendered all of the gorgeous landscapes in stunning detail. The picture is populated with colourfully-designed characters as well. The most notable character from a design standpoint is Merida, whose blazing red hair must’ve been a nightmare to animate. Somehow, too, the animators managed to make bears seem cute. Indeed, Brave posed a number of unique visual challenges for the Pixar team, who conquered them all with utmost confidence. Fortunately, there are a number of great moments scattered throughout the film, including a few scenes involving a ferocious bear that are nail-bitingly tense (note the PG rating, parents). But less impressive are the 3-D effects, which are utter rubbish. Brave is dark in terms of lighting and colour palette, and thus the glasses only serve to make the picture even dimmer. It does a disservice to the Pixar animators whose work will not be fully seen or appreciated in 3-D.

The biggest positive of Brave is its voice cast. As Merida, Kelly Macdonald is sublime. Her vocal performance is strong and energetic, giving life to this heroine who’s brash, stubborn and sweet. Macdonald is a home-grown Scottish lass (she was in Trainspotting), so her natural accent gives Merida an endearing flavour. As Pixar’s first lead female character, Merida needed to stand out and make an impression, and, fortunately, she does. Another masterstroke was the casting of Billy Connolly as King Fergus. With the comedian’s touch, Fergus has genuine personality; another essential element of any Pixar production. Digging into the supporting cast, Emma Thompson is expectedly great as Queen Elinor, while Scottish actors Robbie Coltrane, Kevin McKidd and Craig Ferguson all give position impressions as various Scottish lords.

Brave feels like a production that was drastically retooled several times, resulting in a disorganised finished product. Reportedly, original director/writer Brenda Chapman imagined the picture to be dark and mature, but departed the project in 2010 over creative disagreements. One must wonder if Chapman’s vision would have resulted in another sophisticated Pixar classic rather than the light-hearted piece of entertainment we’ve ended up with. Brave‘s thematic undercurrents show promise, yet the execution is nothing special. Nevertheless, it’s easy to appreciate the film’s artistry, and it does entertain easily enough throughout its runtime. This will be just fine for some, but others will be left longing for the transcendent Pixar that they fell in love with.