Over the years, Pixar has taken us on magical journey after magical journey. Rapt audience members have traversed the ocean with a couple of endearing fish and some surfer-dude turtles. We’ve been pulled up into dizzying flights of fancy thanks to a house borne aloft by thousands of balloons. In Brave, Pixar’s latest animated film, the studio invokes actual magic for what may be the first time, with witches lurking in the woods and spells being cast. Despite this, however, the film never manages to fully enchant.

Brave tells the story of Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald), a feisty Scottish princess with a penchant for archery and an uncontrollable mane of red curls. When her parents (voiced by Billy Connolly and the ever-reliable Emma Thompson) tell her that, to keep the kingdom united, she must marry whichever royal suitor wins her in a contest, she rebels. Running off into the woods, she encounters a witch and wrangles a spell to, as she’s fond of repeating ad nauseum, “change [her] fate.” Of course, the spell has unintended consequences, and she must race against the clock to reverse it before the effects become permanent.

Brave knows how to be a perfectly diverting summer film. For adults and kids alike, it throws in plentiful moments of laugh-out-loud humor. The film’s multiple writers and directors (Brenda Chapman, Mark Andrews, Steve Purcell and Irene Mecchi) milk male braggadocio for maximum comedic effect. Various suitors and lesser lords try to assert their dominance but just end up bumbling, their puffed-up chests deflating with a whoosh. Also particularly entertaining are Merida’s three young brothers (Harris, Hubert and Hamish), rapscallions who get into all sorts of mischief around the castle. They’re charming little sociopaths in the making, willing to do anything for extra dessert and scarily seamless in their machinations. The spell’s consequences provide further hilarity in the form of some excellent, specific physical humor, although to say any more would ruin the surprise of it.

To boot, Brave boasts some fine vocal acting performances. Kelly Macdonald, the Scottish actress perhaps most widely known from her role on Boardwalk Empire, gives Merida plenty of spunk, and mostly manages to keep her whining from getting too annoying. The remarkable Emma Thompson, who has made her mark on too many movies to mention here, provides a lovely, more understated counterpoint to Macdonald, although she doesn’t get to talk for far too long in the movie’s middle section. In general, the film’s voice actors revel in the Scottish brogue, roaring and rolling their words around with glee.

Adding to its attractiveness, the movie is also gorgeous to look at. The animators have imbued all the characters fully with life, thanks to effortlessly human motions. The Scottish countryside has never appeared so sun-dappled and verdant. At one point, Merida climbs a vertiginous rock and whirls with joy under a waterfall she finds at the top of it. The water practically sprays off the screen. Her hair bears another mention as well. Purportedly made up of 1,500 individual curls, it could be the main character in its own movie. People might well pay to watch 90 minutes of that hair bouncing around, catching the light in various ways and breaking free of anything trying to restrain it.

Yet something keeps the film from truly grabbing hold. It seems unfair to judge Brave against the rest of Pixar’s oeuvre, but memories of better films do hang heavily over its head. For the studio that gave the world Toy Story and Wall-E, Brave feels like a step backward. Other Pixar movies delighted in the original. The story of a rat who dreams of becoming a first-class chef in Ratatouille, for example, was unlike anything seen up until that point. But Brave’s story, in spite of its Scottish setting and original flourishes, has been told before. Merida, with her bow and arrow and her fiery spirit, emits echoes of Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games mixed with every other spunky princess from a kid’s movie made recently. She just wants to run around, but she’s being forced into ladylike things! Sound familiar? Another strike against Merida, besides her cookie-cutter girl power, is her extreme selfishness. She evinces total stupidity and egocentrism in ordering up and carrying out the witch’s spell, and that may be enough to prevent some viewers from getting fully on board with her attempts to reverse it.

What’s more, the film never fully packs an emotional punch. It ends up being a story about mother-daughter bonding with some lovely little moments. However, the possibility of loss or an unhappy ending never seems real, so it’s hard to get too worked up about any of it. Contrast the contrived, fairy tale nature of Brave’s conflict with Pixar’s Up, which managed to convey the beauty and sadness of a life-long love in its first 10 minutes, and you’ll see how shallow and low-stakes Brave turned out to be. I normally turn into a sniveling mess at both Pixar movies and films about mother-daughter relationships. Brave combines them both and should have been tear central, but my eyes stayed dry.

These quibbles do come from an adult lens. If you have a six-year-old, by all means take him or her. Fascination is the most likely reaction for them, and you’ll probably have a good time. But unlike some of the characters, you won’t be transformed.

Rating: 2 out of 4 stars

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