The mere fact that Brother Bear is a cartoon, and streets ahead of Disney’s last attempt at a kiddie flick involving bruin antics (The Country Bears), is itself a cause for minor celebration (emphasis on the word “minor,” however).
Brother Bear is not only a return to the corporate-filmmaking mentality the studio blessedly eschewed with Lilo and Stitch, but the resulting six-writer pastiche (“Hey, it’s like The Lion King, but with bears!”) is Disney at its most virulent. While old Walt just dearly loved to traumatize his young viewers by offing a parent in the first reel or so, Brother Bear ups the ante by affording the viewer the senseless demise of an older, caretaker brother (human) and a mother (bear) before this latest offering is a reel old. This, perhaps, represents some kind of progressive thinking, but it also sets a gloomy tone for the film’s simple life-lesson story about how animals and people just plain ought to get along better. (Said lesson, it should be noted, does not extend to our finny friend the salmon, who is cavalierly depicted as just so much bruin fodder; the icthylogical world just don’t get no respect!)
Apart from my reservations about the film’s apparent obsession with orphaning main characters, nothing seems all that wrong with Brother Bear where younger viewers are concerned — except that you’ve seen and heard it all before, and the movie’s trailer pretty much clued you in on the message it takes the main character, Kenai, 80 minutes to learn.
The premise is simple and effective enough — after accidentally causing the death of his brother, Sitka (voiced by D.B. Sweeney) and deliberately causing the death of the mother of bear cub Koda (Jeremy Suarez), Kenai (Joaquin Phoenix) is himself transformed into a bear by Sitka’s spirit, to learn the error of his ways. That’s fine, I suppose, though it’s hardly original.
Nor, for that matter, is the realization that Kenai and Koda aren’t sufficiently entertaining to support the proceedings — so the film has to be fleshed out with Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas doing their old McKenzie Brothers routine — as a pair of animated talking moose called Rutt (what?) and Tuke — to take up the slack. The MooseKenzie Brothers are occasionally funny, but they feel just as recycled as the rest of the movie. At least the Phil Collins songs that adorn the soundtrack don’t head for the usual Disneyized show-tune territory — and Tina Turner even lands a pretty good song in the mix. But the score does sound awfully like the songs Pete Townshend wrote for his album version of the Ted Hughes children’s story The Iron Man, mining similar thematic concerns — albeit with less bite and wit (this is Phil Collins, after all).
All this to one side, Brother Bear is beautifully animated, and some of the visuals are quite impressive. First-time directors Aaron Blaise and Robert Walker evidence a good sense of grandeur on that score, though they do cop their most notable conceit, when Kenai is transformed into his bear self — switching from a “flat” format (by means of masking) to a widescreen one — from Robert Redford, who pulled basically the same stunt in The Horse Whisperer, once that movie moved to the west.
In the end, the film is reasonably painless for adults, its message is good-hearted and, if you stack it up against such studio truck as the dismal Jungle Book 2, it looks even better. It’s just too bad it’s so lacking in the originality department that you’re apt to think you’ve seen the whole movie before.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke