If you recall, Disney’s original “Brother Bear” from 2003 was one of the studio’s last traditionally animated, big-screen theatrical releases, and it acquitted itself pretty well. Naturally, that cried out for only one thing: Sequel!
No, wait, don’t go away. I have to admit that many of Disney’s sequels have not held up too well to close scrutiny, but 2006’s direct-to-video release, “Brother Bear 2,” is a notable exception. Not that the first “Brother Bear” was a great movie by any means, but the sequel is at least as good, both as a film for children and as something adults might enjoy, too. In fact, when you consider that Disney meant this production strictly for the home and it probably didn’t cost nearly as much as the first film to make or market, it’s actually a superior product.
Now, as you’ll also recall, the first “Brother Bear” concerned a young man, Kenai, living in some vaguely prehistoric time, who goes off seeking revenge on a bear that took his older brother’s life. However, upon killing the bear, Kenai found himself somehow transformed into it, through some sort of spiritual conjuration literally becoming the bear. Then Kenai as a bear went on a journey of adventure and discovery to reach a mountaintop in order to change himself back into a human being, which he chose not to do. The filmmakers intended this to be very spiritual and all, and the sequel takes up Kenai’s story a few years later.
Kenai is still a bear, but this time instead of being voiced by Joaquin Phoenix, he’s voiced by Patrick Demsey. I suspect Phoenix priced himself out of the direct-to-video market. Anyway, the first things we see are Kenai and his brother bear Koda (Jeremy Suarez) frolicking around the countryside, the world new and innocent and exquisitely drawn by the Disney animators. The animals are so loveable and sweet they will no doubt inspire any number of youngsters and their parents to pet and feed the bears at Yellowstone. People: Please do not do this.
Then we switch to the second most important character in the story, Nita (Mandy Moore), a good friend of Kenai in his youth before becoming a bear. Nita is now young woman about to be married, but on her wedding day, the fates intervene. The village shaman tells her she cannot marry until she breaks the bond between her and Kenai. But Kenai’s a bear, she protests. Never mind, says the shaman, and Nita’s dad tells her that “once you love someone, they stay in your heart forever.” The upshot is that she must find Kenai the bear, and together they must go to the waterfall where they first professed their love for one another, and there they must burn the amulet that Kenai gave her. When they do that, it will sunder the link between them, and Nita will be free to marry whom she pleases. The shaman conveniently conjures up the spirits to provide Nita with the power to speak to and be understood by the animals. The story then recounts Nita and Kenai’s adventures journeying to the waterfall.
The problem for Kenai and Nita is that they are both conflicted. They still like each other a good deal, but, you know, like he’s a bear and all. Kenai longs to be human again and maybe call upon the Great Spirit to change him back, but then he has his little bear brother to think about. What to do, what to do….?
Along for comic relief are the two moose, Rutt and Tuke (Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas reprising their roles from the first film, as well as their old McKenzie brothers). This time, the moose have caught spring fever, eh, and are off chasing a pair of girl moose, eh? Their routines get somewhat tiresome, but they’re the only light spots in an otherwise fairly serious, heavily thematic, strongly moralistic film, eh?
OK, it’s true the film does not move along very fast, except during a brief sequence with a group of racoons, and the filmmakers don’t do the best job developing the characters or story; but let’s look at the brighter side. Two of the hallmarks of any great Disney film are its visual appearance and its music. “Brother Bear 2” looks terrific, and the music is at least adequate if not entirely memorable. Melissa Etherridge and Josh Kelley perform the songs, singly and together, and while the music can get a wee bit syrupy, kids will probably find the sentiment fitting. Besides, the opening number is quite upbeat. But, now, look at the artwork. Here’s what makes up for everything else. This movie is beautiful to behold. The backgrounds, some of them probably left over from the first movie, are time-honored Disney pastels, lovely and detailed; while the characters are crisply drawn, with plenty of facial expression.
Then, there’s the ending, which is predictably sentimental but might bring a tear to the eye of the most calloused viewer. “Brother Bear 2” may not be first-tier Disney filmmaking, but it is first-tier Disney animation, and that and the sweetness of the story line may be enough to keep even grown-ups entertained.
I hardly think one could find fault with any part of this video presentation. It’s a high-bit-rate, anamorphic transfer that displays bright, solid colors across a 1.78:1 screen, with almost no grain, moiré effects, pixilations, or other distractions. The picture is clear, clean, and well focused. You may say it’s a little unfair to compliment an animated feature this way, in that a cartoon doesn’t have the visual subtleties of a live-action movie to convey, but, I mean, that’s the way it is; cartoons have it a little easier, and this one looks great.
Just as the video is a feast for the eye, the Dolby Digital 5.1 sound is a feast for the ear, as the modern surround sound encircles the listener and puts one into the very center of the action. Voices, waterfalls, animals, music, and forest noises come at us from all directions. The drum sounds especially deep and taut, with all things together producing a most realistic aural environment.
The single disc contains only two bonus items, and they are not exactly earthshaking. The first is “A Behind-the-Scenes Peek at the Music of Brother Bear 2,” eight minutes with singer/composer Melissa Etheridge and the filmmakers. This one has to be for adults because I can’t imagine too many youngsters willing to sit through it. The second item is a trivia game called “Trample Off, Eh?” with the moose Rutt and Tuke, eh. It’s a typical question-and-answer quiz, the winning result of which is anticlimactic to say the least.
In addition, there are twelve scene selections and a chapter insert; Sneak Peeks at ten other Disney titles; English, French, and Spanish spoken languages; and English captions for the hearing impaired. The keep case comes housed in a colorful and attractively embossed slipcover.
“Brother Bear 2” does not quite compare to some of Disney’s finest animated work in terms of story or character, but it surely holds its own in terms of artwork and sound design. Adults may think the narrative less inspired than children will, but nonetheless they may find the beauty of the artwork a genuine pleasure.