Brother Bear

Robin Clifford 
Brother Bear
Laura Clifford 

Kenai (voice of Joachim Phoenix) is an eager teen who is about to undergo the rite of passage in his tribe and become a man. The wise shaman (Joan Copeland) of the tribe selects, for Kenai’s totem, the symbol of the bear, for love. He grudgingly accepts what he considers a ”sissy” totem but not before a real bear enters the camp and, because of Kenai’s negligence, steals the basket containing the tribe’s hard earned catch of fish. Chastised by his older brother, Denahi (Jason Raize) and Sitka (D.D. Sweeney) for his carelessness the newly anointed young man sets off to track down the thieving bruin in “Brother Bear.”

This is definitely a second tier animation effort by Disney Studios and one that I am not sure is clearly defined as to its target audience. “Brother Bear” starts off on a serious note as Kenai heads into the wilderness to find and, since he is heavily armed, kill the marauding bear. His brothers, being protective of their sibling, follow him and, in a frightening sequence, elder brother Denahi dies saving Kenai from the bear. Vengeful, Kenai hunts down the culprit for his brother’s death and, in turn, kills the bear. Through the magic of fairy tales and the Mouse House, Kenai is changed into a bear and now, so to speak, must walk a mile in another man’s shoes. Or, in another bear’s fur. Up until this point “Brother Bear” is a mostly serious story with some issues that may not be suitable for younger kids. And, herein lies the problem.

Once Kenai is changed into The Bear the movie changes 180 degrees and becomes a lighthearted fish-out-of-water tale as the new bruin must get to the mountain where the sky touches the earth to become a man again. He meets a baby bear, Koda (Jeremy Suarez), who becomes his sidekick as they journey across the land until they reach the ”gathering” where all manner of bears meet to feed on salmon. (In truth, it looks like a Sandals resort for the bear in-crowd.) They are accompanied on their journey by a pair of moose, Tuke and Rutt (Dave Thomas and Rick Moranis), that have a striking resemblance of personality to the actors’ Bob and Doug McKenzie characters, right down to the fondness for a concoction containing warm, malted barley.

This split in story styles and apparent age demographics is going to make “Brother Bear” a hard sell. The mirthful side, with the talking animals and anthropomorphizing of the forest critters – and this is what is presented in the trailers – is a definite draw for the kiddies. But, the serious story, which starts things off in an extended sequence long before the talking bears enter the picture, is the meat of the tale and is a bit too mature for the younger crowd.

Animation is competent without breaking any new ground. Computer-generated animation is used, especially for water born bits, but the makers stick to 2-D cel animation for the most part.

I give it a C+.

In the Pacific Northwest at the end of the Ice Age, Kenai (Joaquin Phoenix, "Buffalo Soldiers") is ready for his manhood ceremony.  Disappointed when grandmotherly spiritual leader Tenana (Joan Copeland) presents him with a bear totem symbolizing love, then frustrated when he discovers a bear has taken his basket of salmon, Kenai impetuously takes off in pursuit of the animal.  His older brothers, Sitka (D.B. Sweeney, "Memphis Belle") and Denahi (Jason Raize) rush to protect him and Sitka makes the ultimate sacrifice, cracking off the ice ridge that holds himself and the bear high over a river.  The bear lives and Kenai tracks and kills it, but Sitka's spirit wishes to teach him that this is not the answer, turning Kenai into his "Brother Bear."

"Brother Bear" may be Disney's first serious misstep.  Its mix of adult themes on killing, Indian mythology and cutesy talking animals plays like an animation with a split personality. "Brother Bear" also has the misfortune of seeming like an also-ran after Fox's ice-age themed "Ice Age."  Character features are repeated (a Croatian bear uncannily sports the same face as Stitch's creator Jumba) and the bears' utopian goal of a salmon run is an affront to Disney's recent box office champs of "Finding Nemo."  Artistically the film unfolds some beautiful natural vistas and there are some supporting players who almost make the effort worthwhile.

Kenai is teased mercilessly by middle brother Denahi, whose wolf totem signifying wisdom is questioned in turn by Sitka, who holds the eagle of guidance.  Once Kenai's killed the bear which stole his fish, an eagle spirit descends and Kenai is swept into the magic of the aurora borealis which leaves him in bear form.  In one of the film's best scenes, Kenai is thrown completely off balance adjusting to his new form, now seeing the world in 'bear vision' (the film's format changes from 1.85:1 to Cinemascope and color and sound are enhanced) as an understanding Tenana chides the young man.  Meanwhile, Denahi, who witnessed a bear lumbering off from his brother's clothes and spear, imagines the worst and begins to hunt his brother. (This is a questionable turn of events in that Denahi clearly blamed Kenai's initial pursuit of the bear for Sitka's death).

Kenai immediately finds himself caught in a trap and after initially objecting, accepts the help of a lost cub, Koda (Jeremy Suarez, TV's "The Bernie Mac Show"), who needs an adult's help to reach the salmon run and find his mother.  Koda's incessant chatter irritates Kenai, but he persists because Koda also claims to know the location of where the 'light meets the earth,' the place where Kenai can return to human form.  The two have many adventures, riding mammoths, befriending two pea-brained moose, Rutt (Rick Moranis, "Strange Brew") and Tuke (Dave Thomas, "Strange Brew") and observing the silly antics of competing mountain rams (Paul Christie and Daniel Mastrogiorgio) who discover the echo effect while vying for female attention.  Kenai begins to soften towards Koda when they discover the drawings of cave dwellers portraying bear hunting. 'Those monsters sure are scary, especially with those sticks' Koda observes to Kenai, who now has gained a different perspective.  When the duo arrive at the run, leader Tug (Michael Clarke Duncan, "The Green Mile") insists they all tell a story and Kenai learns a horrible truth (that will be no surprise to anyone else) about Koda.

"Brother Bear" is a hit and miss affair in almost every regard.  The story is obvious and not particularly engaging, although the antics of the former Doug and Bob McKenzie, complete with references to barley and hops, are amusing and their lesson of brotherly love ('Remember when your hooves froze in the lake?  Who sat with you all winter, eh?') goes down easily. The film's funniest bits are saved for the end credit sequence (one of those mountain rams is still persisting with 'No, you shut up!').  Unfortunately, vocal performances follow along in this vein, with only those skilled in comedy able to inject real personality.  The film's animation is stunning when dealing with nature themes (the aurora borealis, landscapes, salmon run), but the characters themselves, moose excepted, are a bit humdrum.  Phil Collins' music is thoroughly bland mush - not even Tina Turner's accompaniment on "Great Spirits" really livens things up too much, but the use of the Bulgarian's Women's Choir is effective and more in keeping with the film's spiritual aspects.

"Brother Bear" will be OK for the kiddies who won't be alarmed by the brutal bear attacks and hunts, but adults will merely be hibernating.


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