November 1, 2003 -- “Brother Bear” is not among the best Disney animated films, but it is still better than most “family” movies in theaters these days. It is beautifully drawn with stunning colors and it has engaging characters and has some good Phil Collins music, but the story is both overly dark and anemic.
The story concerns three stone age brothers whose destiny gets tangled up with a family of bears. Kenai, the youngest of the three, antagonizes a bear, which attacks him. His oldest brother, Sitka saves Kenai from the bear, but dies in the process. In anger, Kenai sets out to kill the bear, but ends up magically becoming a bear himself. Kenai's other brother, Denahi, thinking Kenai is dead, plans to kill the bear he thinks is responsible for his brother's death. Little does he know that he is hunting his own brother (the symbolism isn't very subtle). Kenai starts a long and perilous journey to the mountain where the night rainbows (northern lights) touch the earth. There, he believes, his humanity can be restored. Along the way, he meets a cub named Koda, who becomes his friend and companion on the journey.
This is as much a spiritual journey as a journey in time and distance. Kenai, a foolish man, who becomes a foolish bear, has much to learn about love and family. Koda is wise beyond his years. He is also very spunky. The two bears meet a number of other bears along the way, and also meet two moose, Rutt and Tuke, who provide comic relief. These two crazy Moose sound just like Bob and Doug McKenzie of Second City Television's “Great White North” series and the movie “Strange Brew.” That is because the voices of Rutt and Tuke are provided by Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas, the same guys who played the McKenzie brothers. These guys are funny, and there are a number of funny bits involving the two bears as well. There is a dark, serious undertone to the film as well, which may not be interesting to some kids. I saw this film in a theater with lots of kids and they laughed at the funny stuff. I don't know if the kids really followed the rest of the complicated plot.
This is reportedly the last classic animation film that Disney will make. It is a tradition that goes back 75 years. If that is true, it is not a smart decision, but at least Disney went out on a high artistic note. This film has some wonderful artwork. The depiction of the northern lights, the aurora borealis, is fantastic. In addition to classic animation methods, a lot of digital animation was used in the film. In the future, Disney plans to use the kind of three dimensional-looking digital animation pioneered by Pixar Animation Studios in such films as “Toy Story,” “Monsters Incorporated” and “Finding Nemo.” Even if Disney abandons classic animation, the tradition will probably continue in Japan where animation is more popular than it is in the U.S. The incredible success of the Pixar movies is due only in part to their new look, but to a larger extent, these films are popular because of strong screenplays and good character development. These things are the key to any good film, regardless of the technology used to make it. A non-compelling screenplay is the Achilles heel of “Brother Bear.” Character motivation and development are also weak. The characters behave in a somewhat arbitrary and inconsistent manner. The story is also an uneasy blend of drama and comedy. The balance of the two conflicting elements doesn't quite work, and the film comes off a bit on the dark side. The film's humorous elements work well for kids, but the film's darker elements really aren't substantial enough for adults and they don't seem well suited to children, either.
The film's drawbacks are not the fault of the voice talents behind the images. The actors do a fine job. Among them are: Joaquin Phoenix of “Gladiator” (voice of Kenai), Jeremy Suarez of the Bernie Mac TV show (voice of Koda the bear), Jason Raize of the Broadway production of “The Lion King” (voice of Denahi), D.B. Sweeney of “No Man's Land” (voice of Sitka) and Michael Clarke Duncan of “Daredevil” (voice of Tug the bear). The film does display an odd embrace of pagan animistic religion, but it is not done in any consistent way. The story embraces the notion that animals are much the same as humans, except for their shape. There is some hunting in the film, although no animal predators are shown killing anything. In short, this is the usual Hollywood view on animal rights, hunting, a romanticized view of nature and primitive society (very noble savages), etc. It isn't a bad film, but it falls just short of being good. It rates a C+.
Click here for links to places to buy or rent this movie in video and/or DVD format, or to buy the soundtrack, posters, books, even used videos, games, electronics and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.