Computer-animated films such as Finding Nemo and Monsters, Inc. now routinely out-gross traditional hand-drawn animated films at the box office. Some say that the 2-D animated films are soon to become dinosaurs; studios allegedly don’t want to make them because they no longer earn as much as their 3-D counterparts. The Walt Disney Studio has brought us most of the classic hand-drawn movies, and they don’t appear ready to raise a white flag just yet. Instead, they’ve tried experimenting with the stories they tell in order to come up with something new. Lilo & Stitch employed a more anarchic sense of humor, which paid off with a $100+ box office take. More importantly, it was also a terrific film in which the gamble paid off. The studio experiments again with Brother Bear, a New Age-y tale that doesn’t quite rank as a masterpiece, but which is enjoyable nonetheless.
The story is set among a tribe of Native Americans which includes three brothers. Sitka is the oldest, the one who tries to impart wisdom to his younger siblings. Then there’s Denahi, the warrior of the three, and finally Kenai (voiced by Joaquin Phoenix), who impulsive and irresponsible. When Kenai is careless with the tribe’s fish supply, a bear comes along and eats it. Kenai then sets out to retrieve the basket the fish was contained in. He is attacked by the bear, and his brothers come to his rescue. During the attack, Sitka realizes that the only way to help his brothers escape the bear is to sacrifice himself, which he does. Kenai, burdened with overwhelming guilt, later finds and kills the bear out of bloodlust. Sitka – now a spirit in the sky – decides his younger brother needs to learn a lesson about not blaming others, so he magically transforms Kenai into a bear.
The only way to possible change back is for Kenai to journey to a magical mountain “where the light touches the earth” and convince the spirits to return him to his natural form. Along the way, he meets up with a young bear cub named Koda (Jeremy Suarez), who has been separated from his mother. Koda looks up to Kenai as a big brother, although the larger bear is initially reluctant to take on the position of role model. The cub tries to help his new friend integrate with the rest of the bears in the forest, including leader Tug (voiced by Michael Clark Duncan). The trials of the journey ultimately help Kenai learn the value of responsibility and brotherhood.
As you may have guessed, Brother Bear experiments with the Disney storytelling style by adding a mystical, New Age vibe. The whole idea of spirits and spells and transformations is a little different than anything done by the studio before. The magical place Kenai must go to looks kind of like the Northern Lights. A bunch of swirly, multicolored patterns float in the sky right above a mountain summit. Lightning crashes, and images of people and animals can be seen in the haze. It is also a place, apparently, where Kenai’s dead brother can come back for a visit.
Although the approach is different, it works because the emphasis is still on story. If we didn’t care about the plot, Brother Bear might have seemed a little too hippy-dippy. This, however, is a tale about Kenai discovering his true self in whatever form that takes. Or, as Sitka puts it, he “learns how to be a man by becoming a bear.” The movie tells a solid story about accepting responsibility in life. It tells younger viewers that you grow up not by physically getting bigger, but by becoming more mature or more nurturing to those around you. The trick is to find your contribution to the world and make it.
I like that story, and the animation here is typically beautiful. If there’s one certainty in the world, it’s that Disney movies will look great. My favorite thing about the film, though, is the humor. A lot of the forest creatures Kenai meets are hilarious, including two rams who get confused by their own echo over a cavern. My absolute favorite parts of the movie, though, are the scenes involving two moose named Rutt and Tuke. These characters are voiced by “SCTV” alumni Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas, who recite their dialogue in the style of their famous creations Bob and Doug McKenzie. (The moose even use the familiar catchphrase “beauty, eh?” a few times.) As someone who revered the McKenzie Brothers routine back in the day, I found myself laughing hysterically whenever Rutt and Tuke came onscreen.
There is so much to like in Brother Bear, but not all of it works. For one thing, I despised the music. Phil Collins wrote six totally unmemorable songs for the soundtrack. If there’s a lyrical cliché to be found, Collins uses it in one of the tunes. There hasn’t been such an unpleasant and grating musical element to a film since Bryan Adams’ irritating wailing in the otherwise fine Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron. I also thought that Brother Bear’s New Age element never jelled with the silly comedy of the talking animals. The two elements work individually, but they make an uneasy combination.
Still, Brother Bear remains worth seeing. It is a good piece of family entertainment. I’d also like to point out something very special the movie does. During the scene in which the bear attacks Kenai and his brothers, we get a close-up of Sitka right as he’s about to sacrifice himself in order to save his brothers. There is a look of resignation on his face as he plunges his spear into a glacier, sending himself and the bear over the edge. A good live actor can make you feel the emotion of that scene, but it’s an incredibly hard thing to animate. The Disney team is accomplished enough that I got choked up in that moment. The look on Sitka’s face was so real that it made my heart sink. They did a beautiful job. Computer-animation is certainly enthralling, but a moment such as this reminds me that traditional hand-drawn animation has a beauty all its own, and we would be fools to ever let it completely disappear.
( out of four)
Brother Bear is rated G. The running time is 1 hour and 23 minutes.
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