Brother Bear Movie Review

Brother Bear is the very Disney tale of a young bear-hating man named Kenai (voiced by Joaquin Phoenix) transformed into a bear and embarking on a journey with an orphaned cub. It's beautiful look at, but minor and sort of inert. I don't deny Disney the right to make a minor cartoon now and then (part of the industry's problem is the expectation that every cartoon should be a $200+ million blockbuster), but Brother Bear is oddly thin. Even the gorgeous visuals fade from your head as you leave the theater.

It goes down pleasantly enough as you watch. In fact, Brother Bear is rife with wonderful details. A prologue establishes only that the story takes place "a long time ago"; this allows the artists a certain freedom in their creation of a vaguely North American environment. There are rustling trees, blocks of ice, and swirls of light, all with an unfussy natural flow, not to mention gorgeous colors (it's not for nothing that the frame switches to a wider aspect ratio once the lead character turns into a bear).

It's not just visuals that the movie gets right, either: Some of the storytelling mechanics are surprisingly mature. This is the rare Disney movie lacking a traditionally villainous figure; Kenai and cub Koda (Jeremy Suarez) are pursued not by an evil hunter, but by Kenai's brother Denahi (Jason Raize), who believes that Kenai (the bear) killed Kenai (the human). This isn't one of those talking-animal movies where the "good guys" speak like humans and the "bad guys" growl like, well, animals; the film's view of human/animal communication (or lack thereof) is intriguing. Some of the movie's best sequences are nearly silent; there is a scene of Denahi pursuing the bears across a log-bridged ravine that relies on what we know about the characters for its effectiveness, rather than cheap peril or bad dialogue.

Elsewhere, though, bad dialogue finds a home. The characterizations of Kenai and Koda stick squarely within the blabbering youngster/eye-rolling cynic dynamic. This is not necessarily a bad dynamic. Countless movies have transcended it or improved upon it, sometimes simply through good dialogue and casting. But Brother Bear is uncommonly satisfied with letting the characters just sit there onscreen, inhabiting clichés until the audience does some eye-rolling of its own.

Looking past the disappointment of these tiresome characters, I admire the simplicity of Brother Bear; there are few supporting characters, aside from a pair of moose (Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas, from SCTV) who, despite the obviousness of their comic-relief function, are amusingly daft. If only the filmmakers had spent more time on genuine character interaction, and less on no fewer than three sequences during which Phil Collins songs blare over montages of traveling, capering, etc. No one in this movie seems to be able to forge any kind of relationship without Collins vaguely describing their actions on the soundtrack. Presumably Disney did away with singing animals in a bid for a more discerning audience, but what kind of discerning audience is interested in Phil Collins-scored montages? If these songs are so central (and as far as I can tell, they're not), bite the bullet and make a damn musical.

So my heart goes out to the Disney animators, who are being herded to computer workstations to diddle around with 3-D animation projects (which will inevitably be less enchanting than Pixar's) just for enduring some noble failures like Brother Bear, where the beautiful animation has nothing to do with its cinematic shortcomings. And the thing is, even with those shortcomings, Brother Bear is an O.K. children's movie. But I've seen the gloriously 2-D Lilo & Stitch. I know they can do better. I wish the bosses would let them continue to try.

Disney's DVD comes with two discs, one preserving the odd aspect ratio change midway through the film, one full frame designed to be "family friendly." Extras include a lengthy making-of film, 11 minutes of deleted scenes, and a few sing-along videos. A "hilarious" moose commentary and outtakes are also available.

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They went bearfoot in the park

Comments

Brother Bear Rating

" OK "

Rating: G, 2003

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