In Brave, the newest entry in the Disney-Pixar canon, wild-haired Princess Merida's toughest obstacle isn't her rigid royal mother or a murderous bear that gobbled her pop's left foot.
Instead, the stubborn Scottish spitfire with the wild red mane is battling guys named Woody and Buzz. It might not be fair but it's as true as tomboy Merida's cool aim with a bow and arrow: Pixar has set such a high bar for itself, not just in the animation world but filmmaking in general, that anything other than a ground-breaking bullseye is a letdown.
And Brave, despite its dazzling moments and wild humor, ultimately misses its target mainly due to a tired, borrowed main plot point. It also doesn't help that Merida is following in the footsteps of two other recent archers: The Hunger Games' Katniss Everdeen and The Avengers' Hawkeye. With Pixar, any subpar moment is exaggerated, a victim of its own near-peerless record.
A medieval mother-daughter fable set in the Scottish Highlands, Brave isn't bad by any stretch. Its first 30 minutes are as narratively engrossing and visually lush as Pixar gets, with Merida (voiced with pluck by Kelly Macdonald) gamboling about the mountainous greenery, a Disney princess with no desire to be a Disney princess.
She's Daddy's girl, but Mommy's headache. "A princess does not stuff her gob," the Queen eye-rolls at her eating habits. Merida's mum (Emma Thompson) would much rather match-make her only daughter with a suitor than have her stomping about the country like a wild child.
During a fantastic scene, when three Scottish clans arrive with buffoonish young men hoping to win Merida's hand in an archery match, our princess blows all that awesome fire-red hair out of her blue eyes and — ahem — gets her point across. It's funny, and gripping and triumphant, the sort of girl-power gusto that puts her in the same league as other no-guff Disney gals Mulan and Tiana.
But just as Brave approaches Pixar classic status — prepare to adore Merida's wee brothers, hairy triplets Hamish, Harris and Hubert, who scene-steal with rapscallion gusto — writer-director Brenda Chapman inexplicably leans on a so-so Disney flick, 2003's Brother Bear. In that one, a human, with the help of a daffy old witch, is morphed into a bear to better understand the folly of his two-legged ways. With slight alterations, same thing here. If Merida and her mother don't "mend" their relationship, the queen will stay Mother Bear forever.
The shift in tone is jarring, deflating, especially for Pixar, which might misstep now and then (Ratatouille, Cars 2), but would never stoop to biting wheezy material from somewhere else. Heck, Brother Bear and Brave even share the same hunting-for-salmon scene! There are other missteps: When Merida discovers the triplets have also been changed into little beasties, she greets it with humor, none of the same concern for their grizzly fates. It doesn't make sense.
That's a serious speed bump to overcome, but if anyone can pull out of a tailspin it's Pixar. Brave dutifully keeps the action and humor coming (especially a hilarious sight gag involving bare buttocks). And prepare for an awesome, and surprisingly intense, final battle between the murderous bear Merida's dad has been hunting his whole life and the maternal bear that Merida is protecting. Ponying up for 3D glasses isn't absolutely necessary, but the extra "dimensional" element does pull you in to that epic scrum.
I'd be lying if I said I didn't squirt a tear or two at the film's poignant denouement. It got me. I admit it. Some things never change: Pixar might have lost its creative mojo a bit in Brave, but in the end, Merida's makers still know how to find your heart.
Sean Daly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @seandalypoplife on Twitter.