Brother Bear Review
The rather short-lived Orlando, Florida unit of Walt Disney Feature Animation produced three films, two of which, Mulan and Lilo & Stitch, were of a very high standard. Most people in the know reckon that the reason these two films were so good is the fact that the Florida studio is as far away from executive interference as possible. As a result of these past successes, a lot of people had high hopes for third third and final offering, Brother Bear.
The film tells the story of Kenai, a Native American hunter who manages to evoke the anger of a ferocious bear. In the ensuing struggle, Kenai's brother Sitka is killed, but when Kenai kills the bear to avenge his brother, he is magically transformed into a bear himself. Arriving on the scene, Kenai's other brother Denahi jumps to the wrong conclusions and believes that the bear he sees has killed Kenai, so he too decides to go on a mission of revenge against the bear. Unsurprisingly, the bear-hating Kenai is more than a little peeved to realize that he has turned into one himself. When he learns that he can be transformed back into his original form on the mountain where the light touches the Earth, so he sets out to find this mystical place. Along the way, he is befriended by various creatures, including two comedic moose (mooses?), and a small orphan bear called Koda.
With five credited screenwriters and a score of people on the story development team, Brother Bear's inception was reportedly a painful and convoluted affair. In actual fact, the end result is reasonably coherent, although the middle half of the film suffers from an ambling pace with an indifferent, "so what?" nature. It also takes a bit too long to get started, with Kenai receiving a good 25 minutes of screen-time before being turned into a bear. The opposite is true of the conclusion, which seems to come out of left field and is completely rushed. It actually took a while for it to dawn on me that I was watching the "big" climax.
When the early trailers for Brother Bear began to emerge, it was passed off as a rip-off of The Lion King, due to the similar theme of animals and a number of shots which looked incredibly similar. In reality, the resemblance is only superficial, although both deal with the theme of destiny and one's "place" in the world. It is quite interesting to compare how they approach the similar material in completely different ways. While The Lion King's overarching message was the rather depressing "you can't escape your destiny" (translation: "you can't control your own life"), Brother Bear's conclusion propogates the idea that you can choose to be who you want. While at the end of the day, this is all somewhat irrelevant, it is extremely interesting to see how two films from the same studio approach the same concepts in different ways.
As usual with Disney's animal-themed films, there is a large and wacky cast of characters. Kenai is a somewhat bland protagonist, although in all fairness his character does go through a transformation during the film. Unfortunately, he has an incredibly boring voice, and one has to wonder exactly why Joaquin Phoenix was cast to play him. (It's not as if you can imagine a room of people all leaping to the conclusion that Joaquin Phoenix would be the perfect person to play an animated bear, is it?) Koda, the small bear that Kenai adopts, is the obligatory "annoying cute sidekick" who spends most of the film annoying both Kenai and the audience. When will Disney realize that these self-conscious characters just don't work? In the role of the comic relief duo, a staple in Disney films since Timon and Pumbaa in The Lion King, are two comedy moose named Rutt and Tuke, whose humour seems to be based completely around the fact that they are Canadian and therefore say "eh?" in every second sentence. While slightly funny for a while, by the end of the movie it has worn thin, and the fact that their actual role in the plot is negligible at best lends credibility to the rumour that they were added to the story at the last minute.
Unsurprisingly, the animation is of an extremely high standard, and each character has their own unique quirks and characteristics. When Kenai and Koda arrive at the lagoon towards the end of the film, all the bears are designed in completely unique and interesting ways. That said, the designs of the human characters didn't particularly appeal to me, and some of the early animation of them felt quite stilted, more suited to one of Disney's cheapquels than a full-budget feature. The background artwork is also very nice, with a rough, oil painting style. Even the CG animation is, for the most part, well-integrated. I say for the most part, because at the beginning there are a couple of instances where the computer-generated animation stands out so badly it's painful. One of these is a stampede which is very similar to the wildebeast stampede in The Lion King. It's quite sad when a film that is 10 years old had better integrated CG than one released this year (although The Lion King's use of CG wasn't exactly perfectly integrated itself).
Brother Bear is Disney's second collaboration with Phil Collins, the talented drummer who here lends his voiceless wailings to the film's many musical numbers. Much like in his previous effort, Tarzan, the songs grind the narrative to a halt whenever they appear. At least here, his percussion-based music seems more appropriate to the tribal nature of the film than it did in Tarzan, where it felt wholly uncharacteristic and contradictory to the imagery on-screen. That said, it would have been a better idea for him to have just kept his mouth shut and let the score speak for itself. This really is one of the worst possible examples of the lyrics essentially telling you what is self-evident. (Sorry, Phil Collins fans.)
Overall, Brother Bear is more of a damp squib than the glorious fanfare some had hoped for in the final film to be completed by the talented Florida unit that previously brought us Lilo & Stitch. The animation is mostly top-notch, but the story is muddled and clichéd. More than anything it is clear that the absence of Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois, writers and directors of Lilo & Stitch and members of the story development team for Mulan, hurt this film a great deal. It could have been a great movie, but the end result is rather mediocre and indifferent. Everyone's attention will now be turned towards the upcoming Home on the Range, the last 2D film to be completed by the Burbank unit (and the Disney studio overall).
Above: The cropped version presented on the UK disc.
Above: The correctly formatted version presented on disc 2 of the US release.
Brother Bear is something of an oddity in that it actually has two aspect ratios. In the cinema, the first 20 minutes of the film were projected in 1.85:1 with vertical windowboxing. Then, when Kenai was transformed into a bear, the ratio widened to 2.35:1. The US DVD is a 2-disc set that features both the original version of the film (windowboxed 1.85:1 and 2.35:1) and a reformatted 1.66:1 version. The UK release is a single-disc affair, and sadly what is included is the pan & scan version rather than the proper version.
I doesn't seem worthwhile to rate the picture quality at all, but at least from a technical perspective it is pretty good. It shares all the problems normally associated with digital transfers, namely macro-blocking, unsmooth gradients and a generally flat, lifeless look. However, these irritants seem slightly less severe than normal this time round. The biggest problem here is edge enhancement: it is pretty severe and results in large, ugly halos around the characters' outlines.
At the end of the day, however, this doesn't seem worth mentioning when considering that the biggest problem with the video is the butchered aspect ratio. I see no point in buying this release of the film, since you can get the US version from many online retailers for considerably less money than what most UK retailers are charging for it, and not have to put up with a short-changed presentation. This is very disappointing and something Buena Vista UK should hang their heads in shame for. A film with two aspect ratios was always going to be difficult to transfer to DVD while still appeasing soccer moms, but at least Buena Vista US got the right idea and included both versions. In comparison, this makes their UK division look like money-grubbers desperate to save a buck. No sale.
Two audio mixes are included: both English, one Dolby Digital 5.1 and one DTS 5.1. I listened to both extensively and ended up favouring the DTS variant, as it demonstrated superior channel separation and an overall more enveloping feel. Both sound somewhat tinny with regard to dialogue, however, which I assume is a fault of the original recording rather than either of the DVD mixes.
An audio descriptive track is also included for the blind.
The menus are nicely designed and tie into the movie quite well, with animation, music and some dialogue. Unfortunately, the transitions are often unneccessarily over-long. I really wish distributors would stop making menus with so much animation in them. These menus may be fun the first couple of times, but after a while when you just want to watch the movie, they become incredibly frustrating.
Oh, yeah. Before the menu appears, (skippable) trailers for a number of upcoming products are played, including an absolutely horrific-looking direct to video sequel to Mulan, farmed out to somewhere in the Pacific Rim. Surely this must be a complete kick in the balls to anyone who worked on the original.
My review copy didn't include any packaging so I can't rate this aspect. The cover artwork I have seen, however, is not particularly good, going for the overly-rendered look with some truly nasty composition.
Annoyingly, a rather insightful 45-minute documentary about the making of the film, present on the US set, did not make it to this DVD. What's left is a collection of mainly child-oriented extras.
Koda's outtakes - A collection of not particularly funny outtakes, Pixar-style, narrated by the irritating Koda. Generally these involved characters farting, falling over, breaking the third wall, and so on, when performing their "takes".
Rutt & Tuke's commentary - This hit-and-miss commentary is narrated by Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas in character as the two comedy mooses. Commentaries featuring actors pretending to be the characters they play in the movie never tend to be particularly successful, and this is no exception, with the duo often falling back on narrating what's happening on the screen or throwing in some "interesting" nature information. All kidding aside, these two characters were annoying enough when they had limited screen time in the movie without dedicating an entire commentary track to their ramblings. Why on earth a proper filmmakers' commentary was not recorded is anyone's guess.
Music video - Phil Collins sings "Through My Eyes" interspersed with clips from the movie.
Brother Bear games - There are two interactive games here. In Bone Puzzle, players create bone diagrams by clicking on the appropriate bone (not too hard when a finished version is presented on the screen at all times). Winning each round treats the kids to some information about various wildlife. In Find Your Totem, players are asked various questions, and their answers will reveal their "totem".
Bear Legends - A very rudimentary presentation of various Native American myths and legends.
Making Noise: The Art of Foley - Jeremy Suarez, the voice of Koda, proves himself to be every bit as annoying as his character when he takes a trip backstage to meet the foley artists and find out how sound effects are created in an animated feature. This is reasonably informative but is completely ruined by its cloying, kid-friendly presentation.
Art Review - Art director Robh Ruppel and Kenai supervising animator Byron Howard team up to discuss around 10 minutes' worth of concept artwork, covering their early research and influences. The is probably the best bonus feature of the lot, since it seems to be aimed mainly at adults rather than children, and actually attempts to be relatively informative. Also included a model sheet turnarounds, inspirational photographs and the maquettes (character sculptures) used as reference by the animators. It's amusing to hear the pair musing at how much the 2.35:1 ratio lends itself to atmospheric landscapes given the way the film is presented on this DVD. There is some really great artwork on display here, and it's a shame a proper gallery wasn't included.
Deleted scenes - Introduced by directors Aaron Blaise and Bob Walker, these three scenes do not particularly add anything of note to the proceedings.
Never-before-heard "Fishing Song" - This feature introduces a song that was cut from the film and replaced by a completely different version. Neither sound particularly good to me. Presented in storyboard form.
"Transformation" song with lyrics - The Transformation song in the film is performed in the Inuit language. This brief featurette includes a subtitled translation into English.
Brother Bear is a formulaic but relatively watchable film that tries to do several things but never completely succeeds at any. The UK DVD release is inferior to the US 2-disc set in many ways, and since the original aspect ratio is not preserved, I urge customers to vote with their wallets and not buy this version. Young children may not have a problem with butchery like this, but it sets an extremely bad precedent, and handing over cash for it will send a message to Buena Vista that such behaviour is acceptable, when it is most definitely not. As a result, therefore, I am giving this DVD a rather low overall score, since it presents an incomplete version of the film, and is not something that customers should have to put up with.