IF THE AVENGERS were saucer-eyed, helium-voiced damsels in distress, you'd have the "Disney Princesses"—a stunningly merchandisable phalanx of the studio's most adorably, obnoxiously demure starlets. Far more than relics like Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, Ariel and Jasmine and the rest of the Disney Princesses have come to personify Disney—and, to some extent, Disney subsidiary Pixar. Because while Pixar's made movies starring fish and robots and geriatrics and toys and cars, they've admirably resisted the temptation to crank out an easy cash grab about a prin—shit. Wait. Brave is totally about a princess! That's why its trailers have been so boring!

But high five for restraint: Brave's ads have shown little beyond the film's first act—which is a pretty great surprise, since that's right about the time Brave stops copying Walt's Entitled Princess Formula™ and starts getting interesting. The rote setup has Princess Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald) riding her very own pony through vistas so picturesque one suspects the Scottish Tourism Board blackmailed Pixar; every once in a while, she'll squabble with her parents, Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson) and King Fergus (Billy Connolly). But then Merida goes off the familiar path—venturing a little too far from her safe castle, a little too far into that shadowy forest—and Brave spins into stranger, better, funnier territory.

Brave has neither the emotional impact of Toy Story 3 nor the sharp cleverness of Wall-E, but—like Merida—it does have an earnest, heartfelt core that grows stronger and more confident as it progresses; paired with Pixar's predictably graceful and evocative character animation, the film overcomes its bland opening to become an affecting, inventive, and sincere fable. Nobody needs any more Disney Princesses—but, at least if Merida's any indication, there are certainly worse things than a Pixar Princess.