As the 21st century progresses, “Brother Bear” is certain to be remembered as being not one of Disney’s best animated films, but possibly one of its last. The Mouse has translated the writing on the wall and believes it says that the time has come to pull the plug on the very heart of its empire, that of traditional ink and handdrawn animation.
The powers that be at Disney have had some middling failures in the last few years, most memorably (or not so) “Treasure Planet.” Rather than taking responsibility for lackluster storytelling and ill-fitting A-list vocal talent, however, they’ve turned their blame onto their new competitors in 3D animation, most notably Pixar Studios. The idea now seems to be to phase out the traditional artistry that made the studio what it is today. It’s too bad they can’t see that what has made digitally animated films like “Toy Story” and “Shrek” so wildly popular is that they possess a humor and humanity that has been virtually absent from Disney’s animated efforts.
So on the heels of that announcement comes “Brother Bear,” a perfectly acceptable outing that combines most of the best aspects of Disney animation, yet somehow still feels vaguely stodgy and pandering. At the center of “Brother Bear” is American Indian folklore, specifically that of the pre-conquest northern Inuit tribes (the story wisely avoids the white man by about 10,000 years, instead imagining Indian culture at the end of the Ice Age). During his ceremony into manhood, Kenai, (Joaquin Phoenix), the youngest of three Inuit brothers, is appalled to discover that while endowed with the spiritual totem of the bear, it is love that is to be his guiding strength. This is deeply embarrassing to a young man who sees his brothers’ totems as more authoritative and potent.
His contempt for his totem leads to tragedy when his oldest brother is killed by a bear who has “stolen” fish from the basket Kenai has carelessly left within the bear’s reach. An enraged and grieving Kenai kills the bear in retaliation, only to find himself transformed by the spirits of the forest into a bear, the very creature he loathes.
The story continues along a meandering path as Kenai attempts to return to the mountain where he killed the bear in hopes that he can reverse the “curse.” Kenai meets a young abandoned cub named Koda (Jeremy Suarez) who promises to lead him back to the mountain, which happens to be on the way to the bears’ seasonal fishing grounds. The dialogue between the young bears is, well, mostly unbearable — perhaps only to parents, which is where moose brothers Rutt (Rick Moranis) and Tuke (Dave Thomas) come in. Much to the relief of most of the 30-40 year old chaperones in the theater, Rutt and Tuke turn out to be four-legged versions of none other than Bob &Doug McKenzie, the 1980’s comedic characters who put Canadian (sub)culture on the map. It’s this bumbling, stupidly ridiculous duo that keep the story moving and produce some of the funniest moments of the movie.
Actually, “Brother Bear” would be an enjoyable film to watch if it weren’t for the incessant wailing of Phil Collins, who’s once again been hired to contribute the music soundtrack. To make matters worse, Tina Turner’s completely inappropriate vocals are added to the cacophony to bewilder the audience. It’s just too much. This time around, Disney has a decent film on their hands and there’s really no reason to try to distract the audience from the film.