"Brother Bear," Disney's 2003 entry in the animated feature film category, is a perfectly respectable motion picture, with a decent box office response and an Academy Award nomination to its credit. It should easily appeal to children and maybe to adults as well. My problem with it is that while I admired its purposeful efforts to entertain and enlighten, I found it largely boring.
This latest release is not the Disney of "Snow White," "Pinocchio," "Fantasia," "Beauty and the Beast," or "The Lion King." It's not even the Disney of "Song of the South" and the tales of Brer Rabbit. Although all the right ingredients seem to be in place, "Brother Bear" lacks the sparkle, the ingenuity, the creativity, and the charm of Disney's best work. That it was nominated for an Oscar probably says more about the lack of competition in the field of animation these days than about the quality of the movie.
The setting for "Brother Bear" may remind viewers of "Ice Age" in that its time is during the epoch of the great mammoths, presumably some 10-15,000 years ago when Man was just emerging from living in caves and still hunting his food. It's a place of magic, where we're told anything can happen and, in this film, does.
The main character is a young Inuit named Kenai (voice by Joaquin Phoenix), a rambunctious fellow who is just coming into his manhood and about to receive his totem, his personal guide and protector through life, from the tribal shaman. As he thinks of himself as the macho type, he hopes for a manly, macho totem, a fierce saber-toothed tiger or something like that. Instead, Kenai is given a love bear, which disappoints him greatly because he thinks of bears as stupid, unfeeling brutes, and he becomes the object of much derision among his older brothers for the "love" business.
This opening episode is lengthy, taking up a good half hour of the eighty-five minute movie, and I rather suspect by the end of it a lot of kids are going to be wondering where all the bears are supposed to be. The episode establishes Kenai's character, but it's not much that couldn't have been done in far less time. It's also a period the scriptwriters use to establish the relationships among Kenai and his brothers, who may have lived thousands of years ago but behave like modern teens, spitting on one another and speaking in today's vernacular: "Bonehead," "Dog breath," "He loves me, he loves me not," "What!" While such updating is clearly an attempt to capture the attention of the movie's youthful audience, it may be disconcerting to anyone over the age of nine.
Also, the Wife-O-Meter, whose heritage includes Native American, was annoyed with Kenai's reaction to the totem he was given. She said it was typically Disney for the kid to show a rebellious twenty-first century reaction when, in fact, an ancient (or even a modern) tribesman would have been raised never to question his sacred totem.
Anyway, things at last get rolling when a bear takes the life of Kenai's oldest brother and Kenai goes off for revenge, killing the bear but being transformed into it. Kenai, through some sort of spiritual conjuration, literally becomes the bear. Then the movie gets more interesting as Kenai, as a bear, goes on a journey of adventure and discovery to reach a mountaintop in order to change himself back into a human being. All of this is intended to be very spiritual, although since it's Disney and must not offend anyone, the story shies away from any hint of gods or religion. Which is fine; the story is a mythic fable, after all, and it allows Kenai to see life through the eyes of his hated enemy, giving him a new and better perspective on life.
It is also in this latter section of the story that Kenai meets the two best, most-spirited characters in the movie, a pair of moose named Rutt and Tuke (Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas). They are the comic relief in a movie that takes itself so seriously most of the time that any note of humor is more than welcome. Moranis, especially, is a kick. Unfortunately, they disappear for long stretches and the movie loses some of its momentary steam.
Here the movie becomes even more typically Disney, too, as Kenai meets a cute little homeless bear cub named Koda (Jeremy Suarez), who becomes Kenai's little brother and sidekick. This angle is so old it was parodied in "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" over twenty years ago.
"Brother Bear" is the kind of move that portrays wild animals like bears as entirely sweet and lovable, prompting tourists at Yellowstone to want their snapshots taken with them. "Move a little closer to the bear, Mildred. That's it. A little closer. Now, put your hand out and pet it, Mildred. Mildred? Mildred!!"
The fact is, for all its earnestness, its wholesomeness, and its uplifting moral values, "Brother Bear" is formula Disney. Five writers worked on the script, apparently each of them adding a representative Disney touch. The movie goes from grand and eloquent to wise and spiritual, from tragic and daring to humorous and musical and silly, not necessarily in that order. It tries to be all things to all people, and in doing so ends up rather a bland and homogenized concoction.
For all of the movie's skilled and handsome look, it didn't work for me. The songs, by Disney stalwart Phil Collins, are unremarkable and unmemorable, often attempting a nobility in the manner of "The Lion King" but failing to reach that plateau. And the artwork, though beautiful, is just that, beautiful, not notable or eye-catching as the artwork was in "Finding Nemo." You see, the physical appearance of "Finding Nemo" was able to carry the entire picture, while the look and appearance of "Brother Bear," although lovely, cannot sustain the film alone.
In addition, at regular intervals in the story we're asked to get sad and teary-eyed, too, and before long I was feeling manipulated: Laugh now, cry now, be inspired, cry again, be uplifted. I found it all too obvious, myself, yet I'm sure kids will enjoy it, and there's no question they'll be rewarded for their attention. Plus, there's an admittedly strong emotional kick at the film's climax and a lesson about love and brotherhood and such that are hard to resist.
So, I'd have to give "Brother Bear" a big "E" for Earnestness at the very least. Whether the movie will hold the attention of adults, however, is open to question. It held my attention only in short bursts.
Here's the good, the bad, and the just plain weird about the video. The good is that this THX-certified movie is among the best-looking 2-D animated features I've ever seen. Backgrounds are exceptionally well detailed in the soft, watercolor tradition of the best Disney cartoons, beautiful and realistic. Colors are bright, and the transfer is as good and clean as they come. The bad is that despite all the good intentions of the artists, there isn't a lot of story to tell with the pictures.
Now, the weird. The movie was originally shown in two aspect ratios, according to Disney 1.66:1 when Kenai is a human, opening up to 2.35:1 when he turns into a bear. That's the way the film is shown on disc two. A preface on disc two explains that "'Brother Bear' was presented theatrically in two different aspect ratios. To preserve the original theatrical viewing experience, black bars will completely surround the image during the first 24 minutes of the film." Except that the widest it actually gets is about 2.13:1, anamorphic, but you get the idea.
Then, on disc one the Disney folks offer the film in what they call a "family friendly aspect ratio" of 1.66:1. Except that the ratio actually measures out at about 1.77:1. Now, why do you suppose they insist that the film's taking up more screen space and showing less image is more "family friendly"? Do they not want to confuse young children and naive parents with the wider screen? Are they pandering to the Blockbuster crowd? Well, at least they didn't cut it down to a true pan-and-scan and eliminate half the picture. In any case, I enjoyed the original framing best, even it does seem a little gimmicky.
The sound is provided in Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1 Surround. In DD 5.1 it does everything we could hope for, with strong deep bass, plenty of dynamic range, and a good sense of immersion in the music and environment from the rear speakers. A lava field, for instance, is especially well depicted aurally as well as visually. About the only concern I had was that the sound is characteristically loud and bright, about what we find from most modern theatrical soundtracks in order to be heard clearly throughout a big auditorium. Although soundtracks are usually remixed and re-equalized for home consumption, the sonics are still a bit on the glaring side to appear entirely natural.
Appropriate to an Academy Award nominee, "Brother Bear" is given the full two-disc, special edition treatment. Disc one contains the aforementioned "Family-friendly" 1.66:1 aspect ratio feature; English, French, and Spanish spoken languages; and English captions for the hearing impaired. By way of bonus items, it also contains Rutt and Tuke's amusing full-feature audio commentary (Moranis and Thomas); a music video with Phil Collins, "Look Through My Eyes"; Koda's outtakes; two Brother Bear games, "Find Your Totem" and "Bone Puzzle"; a sing-along song, "On My Way"; some Bear legends; a featurette, "Making Noise: The Art of Foley"; and a ten-minute "Art Review," a gallery of art work from the film. To conclude the first disc, there are twenty-eight scene selections, a THX Optimizer set of audiovisual calibration tests, and some Sneak Peeks at other Disney titles.
Disc two contains the original theatrical-aspect ratio feature, with English and French spoken languages; French and Spanish subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired. But it also contains the forty-five minute documentary "Paths of Discovery: The Making of Brother Bear," which takes you behind the scenes of the filmmaking; a sing-along song, "Transformation"; some deleted scenes; and twenty-eight scene selections. The two discs are housed in a slim-line keep case, with a foldout informational booklet insert to help guide a person through the content of the two discs.
On a more subjective note, I continue to be annoyed by the amount of time it takes to get to the movie on a Disney DVD. On this disc, for instance, you have to go through the FBI warning twice, then the Disney logo, then the coming attractions, then the main menu, then a THX logo, then yet another Disney logo, and finally you get to the opening credits. Unlike some DVDs, this one allows you to bypass each of the screens with the "Forward" or "Menu" buttons, but it's still a nuisance and a wait if you just want to watch the film. It seems to me the Disney company may be taking unfair advantage of children who might not know or be aware of how to bypass all this information. How about a disc that simply boots up to the main menu?
Let me conclude by putting this movie into another perspective. Disney's "Brother Bear" earned over $85,000,000 worldwide, a more-than-respectable figure though probably not much more than it cost to make it, and was nominated for an Oscar in the Best Animated Feature Film category. The same year, Pixar and Disney released "Finding Nemo," which earned over $850,000,000 worldwide and won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature. No, "Finding Nemo" is not ten times better than "Brother Bear," but it's clearly superior on every level, from its story line to its voice realizations. Even Michael Eisner must understand this, although it didn't stop him from failing to negotiate a new contract with Pixar.
The box-office numbers and awards for "Nemo" do, however, show us the direction that animation is taking, which is away from traditional 2-D drawing and increasingly into the 3-D computer world. I'm not sure this is a good idea, and I hope the two approaches can coexist for many more years.
Creatively, though, "Brother Bear" may have been another step backward for a company that has now produced two financial duds ("Atlantis: The Lost Empire," 2001, and "Treasure Planet," 2002) and one so-so film among its last three animated releases. For the studio that started the full-length animation industry, that's not a good sign.