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Toon Talk: Brother Bear
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Disney Film & Video Reviews by Kirby C. Holt
(c) Disney Enterprises
Disney sure has had a fascination with bears over the years: from shorts to features to television to theme park attractions, Disney bears have been portrayed as cute and cuddly (Fun and Fancy Free's Bongo), comedic (Humphrey the Bear), heroic (The Jungle Book's Baloo), ferocious (The Fox and the Hound), realistic (the True-Life Adventure featurette Bear Country) and even musical (The Country Bears). And lets not forget a certain bear with little brain named Pooh ...
So its not surprising that Disney Feature Animation would eventually produce a full-fledged film starring bears; the only surprising element is that it took them this long, especially following the success of that other animal-centric piece, The Lion King.
Set in an unidentified Pacific Northwest region sometime pre-Ice Age, Brother Bear begins as a tale of three brothers: noble eldest Sitka (voice of D.B. Sweeney), middle child Denahi (Jason Raize) and the irresponsible youngest, Kenai (Joaquin Phoenix). When Kenai's rashness leads to tragedy, he sets out to hunt down the bear that (he thinks) caused it, eventually tracking her down and killing her. Apparently, this angers the "Great Sprits of the Skyâ€? (represented as a CGI aurora borealis), who, naturally, transform Kenai into a bear so that he can "see through another's eyesâ€?.
(c) Disney Enterprises
If that all sounds a bit heavy and New Age-y, it is, but once Kenai-as-Bear opens his eyes, the film becomes brighter both visually and in tone (and bigger ... the film switches aspect ratios from 1.85:1 to 2.35:1 Cinemascope at this point, a lĂˇ The Wizard of Oz's black-and-white-to-color switch). Directed by his tribe's resident mystic Tanana (Joan Copeland) to travel to where "the skies touch the earthâ€? to regain his natural form, Kenai finds himself, literally, walking in his enemies' footsteps. Such a transformation would be horrifying, but here its played for laughs, as are every animal Kenai encounters in his new form, including the Bob-and-Doug-McKenzie-as-Moose-brothers Tuke and Rutt (voiced by the original Bob and Doug McKenzie, Dave Thomas and Rick Moranis, natch) and the precocious little cub (like there would be any other kind) Koda (Jeremy Suarez), who agrees to lead Kenai to his destination, but eventually works his way into Kenai's heart (and, as expected, ours as well). Needless to say, truths are learned and revelations are made along the way, up to a rather anti-climatic resolution and a truly pat conclusion.
Visually Brother Bear lacks a distinct style. The backgrounds are flat in a picture postcard way (and yes, there is a Grizzly Peak-like mountain present) and the character animation, with some exceptions, is uninspired. The humans bear (no pun intended) striking resemblances to the cast of Mulan, and the design of the supporting bears is over-characterized; slap a banjo in their paws and they'd be ready for the Country Bear Jamboree.
This makes the work of supervising animators Byron Howard and Alex Kupershmidt on Kenai and Koda all the more valuable in its accomplishment. Along with their respective voice actors Phoenix and Suarez, their collaborative work on the two lead characters grounds the sometimes-wayward plot in the budding relationship between these two.
Hoping to recreate the musical synergy of another "in the wildâ€? Disney hit, Tarzan, composers Phil Collins and Mark Mancina have returned for similar duties on Brother Bear, but, sadly, with less success. Collins' songs (performed by himself along with such disparate acts as Tina Turner, the Blind Boys of Alabama and the Bulgarian Women's Choir) are often joltingly inserted into the narrative and mostly are of the trite power ballad variety; only the lively (and catchy) "On My Wayâ€? stands out amongst this play list.
And while early rumblings likened Brother Bear unfavorably to King and such other early works as Bambi and Pocahontas, it does offer different thematic elements, albeit on a less epic scale and without the signature visual lushness, while stressing the comedic elements over drama and, therefore, playing more towards the kiddie crowd then adult viewers.