After a string of near-perfect films - from "Toy Story" to "Finding Nemo" to "Up" to "Toy Story 3" -- the seemingly invincible Pixar Studios faltered last summer with the lucrative but tepid sequel to 2006's "Cars."
This year's "Brave" - the studio's 13th feature - suggests that "Cars 2" was merely a speed-bump.
Indeed, nearly everyone agrees that Pixar is back on track with this appealing, deftly plotted, visually ravishing tale of a young Scottish lass who eschews the "arranged-marriage-to-keep-the-peace" routine.
As with "Wall-E" and "Up," the lame-looking previews for "Brave" give virtually no idea of the film's engaging, tightly woven narrative.
Even the movie itself at first appears little more than a girl-power rehash about a plucky young heroine who doesn't feel particularly feminine - who wants, in this case, to stay blessedly unattached and run through the woods honing her impressive skills with bow and arrow.
Yet within half an hour, the tale develops into something far more original and complex - something that, among other things, forces young Merida to see that her headstrong resistance to Mom's wishes was as much selfish pride as it was fierce independence.
There's more I won't reveal - except to say that the story juggles various strands and develops a good deal of tension as it moves swiftly toward a satisfying climax and resolution.
As with the best of Pixar, the savvy plotline is greatly bolstered by strong characterizations; this is most affecting in the mother-daughter conflict, and especially in the way "Brave" works to heal this rift.
The film isn't uproariously funny like, say, "Monsters Inc.," but its artwork certainly ranks with Pixar's best - keyed on verdant forests, tumbling waters and spooky Scottish monoliths in the style of Stonehenge.
Similarly strong is the rich Celtic score by Patrick Doyle, who - in his first outing for Pixar - marshals all his expertise from numerous classical adaptations such as "Sense and Sensibility" and Kenneth Branagh's "Hamlet."
"Brave" also boasts a nice post-credit scene that ties up one loose end, and - even better - a splendid opening short called "La Luna."
For me, these introductory Pixar shorts tend to be hit-and-miss, often a little too goofy or surreal for the film they accompany. This one, however, is letter perfect.
With lovely animation, a clever little story and beautifully realized characters, it's an ideal appetizer for the main dish.
"Brave" doesn't quite have the scope and verve of "Wall-E," "Up" or "The Incredibles," but on the whole it's another satisfying feature from the studio that is now working on a tasty-looking prequel to "Monsters Inc."
In any case, it's tough to dislike a film whose dialog contains the word "kerfuffle."
]"Brave" is rated PG for action mayhem and some bare bottoms.