Brother Bear Review
Brother Bear is the third film to be produced entirely at Walt Disney Pictures' feature animation unit in Orlando, Florida, and judging by Disney management's latest decisions, it is likely to be the last. Their two previous releases were the very good Mulan and the superb Lilo & Stitch. 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. With that in mind, a lot of people had high hopes for 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).
It's also worth pointing out that Brother Bear actually has two aspect ratios. The first 25 minutes is presented pillarboxed in 1.85:1, but after Kenai is transformed into a bear the ratio widens to 2.35:1 and the colours become more saturated. This is an interesting idea, but I can only imagine the problems this is going to cause when it comes to the DVD release. (I can't imagine your average Joe Six-pack watching a tiny bordered 1.85:1 window on his 4x3 TV screen for the first Act of the film.)
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. (Sorry Phil Collins fans.) Normally I stick around for the end credits, but on this occasion I became so fed up with his warbling that I left after the animators' names had finished rolling.
Overall, Brother Bear is more of a damp squib than the glorious fanfare some had hoped for in what looks set to be 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).
Note: During the primary credits at the end of the film, a number of animated outtakes and jokes play (clearly an attempt to imitate a practice Pixar used to employ). Some are funny and some are not. Either way, they're worth sticking around for.