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Brother Bear (2003) Print E-mail
Friday, 24 October 2003
So now we're one from the end -- Disney has only one more cartoon animation feature to release, and then they're shutting down their cartoon division for good. In other words, the format that created the studio, that established the Disney name, that has delighted the world for more than 75 years, is coming to an end. Hundreds of employees have already been fired -- and one poor guy, realizing his hard-learned skills, talent and imagination no longer have a place in the world, killed himself.

While "Brother Bear" is a charming, entertaining and occasionally touching movie, it's minor stuff with a story that never quite lives up to its obvious potential. Still, it's worth seeing, especially if you have kids or are yourself an animation buff.

An unusual trick of presentation, previously seen only in "Brainstorm" and "The Horse Whisperer," enhances the majority of the film. The movie opens in a 1.85 aspect ratio with subdued, even dark, colors; when our hero is turned into a bear, the screen suddenly widens to Panavision proportions and the colors become very vivid and varied. However, this is done at a reel change -- we don't see the screen get bigger -- so it's possible many in the audience won't really notice it. Nonetheless, it's not merely a stunt, but instead plays a part in the telling of the story.

Which is set in the distant prehistoric past of North America -- mammoths still roam the landscape -- evidently up in the Northwest someplace, since the people in the movie are Inuits, or their ancestors. At least they have totems, occasionally speak Inuit and live in and near lofty evergreen forests.

Kenai (voice of Joaquin Phoenix) is a daring young Indian, full of ginger, who's looking forward to the big ceremony in which he will be presented with the totem that will be the shape and emblem of his life. He's a rascal, energetic and tricky, the despair of his older brothers Sitka (D.B. Sweeney) and Denahi (Jason Raize). Kenai hopes for a powerful totem such as a saber tooth tiger, or something as dynamic and manly as Sitka's bald eagle totem.

But at the ceremony, the tribal shaman Tanana (Joan Copeland) presents him with a totem (necklace with small carving), its of a bear -- which symbolizes love. Denahi seriously razzes him, but Sitka is furious to see that Kenai's failure allowed a roaming bear to steal their hard-won fish. (Note: it's not clear if these are Kodiaks or Alaska brown bears or even grizzlies; in any event, they're very big.)
Hoping to prove he's worth more than a mere bear of love, Kenai sets out in pursuit of the raiding bear. He's followed by Denahi and Sitka, and when he confronts the bear at the brink of a glacier, Sitka has to save both him and Denahi -- at the cost of his own life. Sitka's spirit ascends to join all departed spirits in the Northern Lights, curtains of light high in the sky, sacred to the Indians.

Kenai manages to kill the bear, but the Northern Lights touch the Earth, and something amazing happens. (This is when the screen widens.) Kenai awakes and sees Denahi; he tries to speak to his brother -- and then learns that he has become a bear himself. His brother hears only an animal's growls and roars, though Kenai can now talk to animals.

He flees, learning that he must reach the mountaintop where the Northern Lights touch the Earth to be changed back into a man.

He encounters chatty bear cub Koda (Jeremy Suarez), who brags of his courage and strength, but is really just a baby who has been separated from his mother. Kenai is at first dismissive of little Koda (who instantly adores him, and keeps tagging along), but then Koda happens to mention that the bears' favorite salmon run is near the mountain touched by the Northern Lights.

The remainder of the movie is a quest as the two head for the salmon run.

The most serious problem with "Brother Bear" is that there's very little conflict, and the quest itself does not provide enough conflict. There's a confrontation between Kenai, still a bear, and his brother Denahi at the climax, but the movie clearly isn't going to end with either of them dead. There should also have been scenes of Kenai discovering the power of being a bear, and how in some ways, it's not really a bad life, but he's still complaining about his fate until just before the end. He makes a major decision, but it doesn't seem organic to his tale, the only satisfying outcome; it just looks like a setup for a straight-to-video sequel.

However, the film is entertaining and charming enough to mostly overcome this lack; it will probably manifest itself only as a feeling that something was missing, just not what it really was. There are several songs by Phil Collins, and the backgrounds (post-transformation) are strikingly beautiful. There are some amusing encounters with animals, such as a pair of mountain sheep rams who are outdone by an echo.

Then there are the hoser (Canadian rednecks) moose, voiced by the most famous hosers of all, Dave Thomas and Rick Moranis, still talking just like they did back on "SCTV," with lots of dudes, eh?s and so forth. Some of what they say is very funny, some is not so funny, and some is indecipherable. Though they're amusing, they're in a completely different style of comedy than the rest of the film, resulting in each reappearance being both welcome and a nuisance.

Sometimes it seems that Disney's animated features are better the farther they are from the Disney lot in Burbank. For example, "Brother Bear," "Lilo and Stitch" and "Mulan" were all made at the Florida studios. "Lilo and Stitch" was terrific, one of the best Disney cartoon features ever (which immediately generated an inferior TV sequel written and directed by people who had no connection with the theatrical film), and "Mulan" and "Brother Bear" are both reasonably entertaining.

But it's also true that except for "Lilo," there's largely been a sense of Disney marking time since "The Lion King," as if there's no one really in charge over there. Maybe Eisner needed Katzenberg a lot more than Katzenberg needed Eisner -- but then, the animated features from DreamWorks (where Katzenberg is one of the partners), are hardly any better than those coming from Disney.

It cannot be emphasized strongly enough that the good CGI features that both studios have made -- "Finding Nemo," "Shrek" -- are not good because of the process, but rather because of the creative minds behind the projects. If those same people were writing and directing cartoon features, they'd be turning out great ones. But now Conventional Wisdom at the studios has declared that CGI really is integral to the quality of those features.

For the record, "Brother Bear" was directed by Aaron Blaise and Robert Walker from a screenplay by Tab Murphy, Lorne Cameron, David Hoselton, Steven Bencich and Ron J. Friedman. Dozens of creative people provided the animation, backgrounds and color.

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