A long, long time ago (75 years, to be exact) Walt Disney presented his new studio’s very first animated film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Featuring a female lead and based on a popular fairy tale, the film set the standard for animated features for decades to come.

Seventeen years and twelve movies since its debut film, Pixar has followed suit– though as breathtaking and beautiful as Brave is, it has the misfortune of being… a Pixar film.

After producing more than a handful of the best animated movies in recent memory, Pixar has set the bar so high that everything it does is supposed to be even better than the last. Sorry, but is it even possible for an animated movie to be more nostalgically fun than Cars? More heartfelt than Toy Story 3? More beautiful and inventive than Wall•E?

It’s a shame, because in a vacuum, Brave is amazing. It’s fantastically animated (you’ll swear Pixar traveled back in time and actually filmed the Scottish highlands), it has great characters (from strong leads to cartoonish buffoons), and the story will keep you riveted until the very end.

Merida (Kelly Macdonald) is a headstrong young Scottish lass in the days of kilts and castles. A tomboy at heart, she lives for days atop her trusty Clydesdale Angus launching arrows at far-off targets. Her mother Elinor (Emma Thompson), however, is a traditionalist, frustrated with her daughter’s unwillingness to follow the path laid out before her– of choosing a suitor from one of three neighboring clans.

Frustrated, Merida runs off into the woods where she trips on a craggy witch (Julie Walters) who grants the young girl’s wish to have a spell that could change her mother’s mind.

The result (as we know from most fairy tales) doesn’t go as planned, and Merida must make things right by (as we know from most fairy tales) learning a valuable life lesson.

The script from co-directors Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman, along with Irene Mecchi and Steve Purcell, does seem derivative at times, but isn’t that why fairy tales have lasted for centuries? If we didn’t enjoy these stories, they wouldn’t be handed down from generation to generation.

Brave borrows from many different sources, including Beauty and the Beast and Disney’s Robin Hood, but there’s so much originality at work here, too, that it stands solidly on its own– whether in the hijinks of the hilarious carrot-top triplets (Hamish, Harris, and Hubert) or the epic, nail-biting finale.

It’s the animation, though, that will leave you floored. From the intricate details of Merida’s fiery curls to the ethereal mist in the spookiest forest this side of the Fire Swamp, Brave is as visually remarkable as anything Pixar has shown us to date (save, maybe, Wall•E).

No question Brave is the most intense (and, therefore, most unfit-for-all-ages) Pixar film, but there also plenty of levity and goofball humor to balance things out.

And, in keeping with the Pixar tradition, there’s a delightful short (La Luna) beforehand, and you can also keep an eye out for the trademark Pizza Planet truck (in the witch’s hovel) and an ear out for Pixar’s good luck charm John Ratzenberger (voicing Gordon, a Scottish guard).

Most of all, keep an open mind and enjoy Brave on its own. It earns it.

4.5/5 stars