The public is training its laser sights on Pixar. After Cars 2, one would be forgiven for thinking that maybe they had lost their touch. The animation demigods are hoping to gain back the people’s favor with Brave, their first completely original film since 2009′s UpBrave represents a series of firsts for the studio. At it’s core is the first female protagonist that Pixar has ever created, it’s the first film where all the main characters have matured past the innocent years of childhood, and it’s the first time the studio has delved into the fantasy world of castles, swords, and magic. And though Brave does follow some of the beats of the traditional Disney princess movie, the storytelling prowess of Pixar, combined with some of the most stunning animation ever seen on screen, more than overcomes it.

Most girls would be happy being the princess to a Scottish king. Fancy clothes, great food (for Scotland), and a marriage to noble lad. Well, most girls, except Merida. Merida has all the traits of a traditional princess. She’s beautiful, strong willed, smart, and kissed by fire (Holla at me ASOIAF fans!). Unfortunately, she possesses no interest in the acting like a lady or engaging in her duties at court, more keen, she is, to ride through the wilderness, firing arrows into the sunset. This doesn’t sit well with her mother, Elinor, who is busy trying to mold Merida into a elegant lady. Fed up with her mother’s constant meddling, Merida employs a witch to cast a spell to change her fate. Of course, she gets more than she bargained for, and is forced to go on an emotional journey to undo her mistake.

On the surface, it does look like a tale you’ve seen before, and it is. Pixar has made a name for itself creating stories of startling originality, but Brave is their first foray into more traditional territory. Let’s be honest, when you’ve seen one Disney princess movie, you’ve seen them all. It’s a mark of how well the guys and girls at Pixar can tell a story that, despite the pedigree it’s boasting, Brave still surprises with its maturity, its wit, and how clever it is with the Disney princess framework. Take it from me, the directions the writers take the story are unexpected and refreshing.

It’s also thanks to the character of Merida, who is one of the best female protagonists to come around in a long time. Here is a “Disney princess” with guts, smarts, sass, and petulance. Her’s is a character we can root for, sympathize with, while at the same time chide and, sometimes, loathe. She’s a complex, but relatable character, certainly among the best in the Pixar canon.

Voice acting across the board, as per usual with Pixar, is fantastic. Kelly Macdonald, Emma Thompson, Billy Connolly, Robbie Coltraine, Craig Ferguson, et al. are stupendous, offering great line readings imbued with wit and emotion, Macdonald and Thompson especially. They are given the most to do, as their relationship provides the backbone of the whole story. I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention Julie Walters, delightfully kooky as the witch.

And the visuals. Holy crap!! Pixar has always delivered astounding images, but they have outdone themselves here. As the camera pans across the Gaelic landscapes, replete with rolling hills, majestic cliffs and thick forests, you can’t help but drop your jaw to the floor. Couple that with some effective, subtle use of 3D, and you are in for quite the visual feast.

It’s not perfect. The first half of the movie is not a good as the second, as it is more dedicated to the traditional Disney princess structure. The humor can be surprisingly low brow in places, even though it is usually smart, relying more on smart dialogue and quick foreground actions than slapstick or toilet humor. It’s not the best in Pixar’s lexicon, that will always be WALL-E, but it’s certainly up there. It’s quite a hard thing, ranking Pixar movies, since they are all so good (well, not Cars, but we don’t have to get into that). I don’t know where Brave sits in terms of Finding Nemo, Toy Story, or The Incredibles. All I know is that I want to see it again!