Brother Bear review by Mike Long

There have many reports recently implying that the death knell has sounded for traditional, hand-drawn 2-D animation. The most telling indicator was the announcement that Disney had closed its animation studio in Orlando, Florida and laid-off much of the staff. For me, I certainly enjoy CG animation, but I also still like 2-D films. As with any medium, the movie must have a good story. Disney’s Lilo & Stitch did, and thus was an enjoyable film. Disney’s latest offering, Brother Bear, does not, and makes one wonder if Disney didn’t kill the medium themselves.

Brother Bear focuses on a group of Native Americans, who presumably live in Canada. Specifically, the film tells the story of three brothers; Sitka (voiced by D.B. Sweeney), Denahi (voiced by Jason Raize), and Kenai (voiced by Joaquin Phoenix). When males in their tribe reach a certain age, they are bestowed with an animal totem -- a spiritual guide who will help shape their lives. The totem chosen for Kenai is the bear of love, a decision which disappoints him greatly. Meanwhile, a real bear has taken a large amount of fish from the village, so the three brothers go after it, and the expedition ends in tragedy. When Kenai attempts to kill the bear in order to get revenge, the great spirits transform him into a bear himself. Now in bear form, Kenai must survive in the wild, and escape the wrath of Denahi, while attempting to reach the place where the “lights touch the Earth”. On his journey, Kenai meets a young bear cub named Koda (voiced by Jeremy Suarez), and this mismatched pair head for the salmon run, an annual gathering for bears.

I really hate to admit this, especially considering that Brother Bear is ostensibly a children’s film, but I didn’t understand this movie. Clearly the film is attempting to teach the importance of tolerance and in the story Kenai must learn the value of brotherhood. But, the story is so unfocused and wavering that these points are only hinted at, and never clearly driven home. And the confusing ending only makes matters worse. Maybe I was reading too much into the story, or perhaps not enough, but Brother Bear appears to be tackling serious issues, but comes across as quite hollow. This could be due in part to the fact that none of the characters are very engaging. The three brothers are interchangeable, and one Kenai makes his transformation, he goes from being a bland human to being a bland bear. Koda offers some comic relief, but the character reminded me too much of the young Simba from The Lion King. Speaking of things from other Disney films, the Phil Collins’ composed songs here sound just like his songs from Tarzan.

The movie’s greatest flaw is that it’s missing the Disney requisite cute animal sidekick character, many of whom have carried recent Disney films. Instead we get Rick Mornis and Dave Thomas doing their McKenzie Brother’s shtick as two moose named Rutt and Tuke. Sure, they have some funny moments, but they aren’t in the movie very much. However, Brother Bear isn’t all bad. There are some interesting scenes, especially one involving a geyser field (although, it’s very reminiscent of the Elephant graveyard scene from The Lion King) and once Kenai makes his transformation, the animation style changes somewhat, revealing some truly gorgeous landscapes and nice character design. But, Brother Bear can’t escape the fact that it’s simply mediocre and disappointing. Take The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast, then remove all of the drama, and you’ve got Brother Bear.

Brother Bear comes to DVD courtesy of Disney DVD. Now, stick with me here, as the technical specs for this release are very confusing. When shown in theaters, Brother Bear opened with an aspect ratio of 1.66:1, but when Kenai turns into a bear, the screen changes to 2.35:1. Disc 2 of this 2-disc set retains the theatrical presentation aspect ratios and the transfer is enhanced for 16 x 9 TVs. Disc 1 also sports an anamorphic transfer, but this version of the film plays at the 1.66:1 size throughout the film. Now, we would typically have a choice between widescreen and full-frame, but a choice between two widescreen versions is a new animal. And, for once, I’m not going to slam Disney for offering the choice, as the 1.66:1 version is perfectly fine as it is still in widescreen, the transfer is anamorphic, and the 2.35:1 portion of the film appears to have been well configured for viewing. The aspect ratio shift on the other version is an interesting artistic touch, but it doesn’t make the movie any better. Either way, both transfers look very good, as the colors are fantastic and each offers a great depth of field. There are no visible defects from the source material and no grain on the image. There is some occasional stuttering in the animation, but this defect is rare.

OK, now for the audio. Disc 1 (the 1.66:1 only version) carries a Dolby Digital 5.1 track. Disc 2 (the 1.66:1/2.35:1 version) has a Dolby Digital 5.1 track and a DTS 5.1 track. Got it? (This is presumably due to the amount of extras on each disc.) Both tracks sound very good, as they offer clear dialogue and musical reproduction. The stereo effects are good and the action scenes deliver superior surround and subwoofer effects. The DTS track sounds somewhat crisper, but both are fine.

The 2-disc set contains many extras. Disc 1 has an audio commentary from Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas who are performing in character as Rutt and Tuke. This is by far the best extra and is actually better than the movie itself, as these two veteran comedians crack joke after joke, most of which will escape younger viewers, but will have adults in stitches. “Koda’s Outtakes” (3 minutes) are faux bloopers, like those made popular by the Pixar films, and some are quite funny. There is a music video (4 minutes) for the Phil Collins song “Look Through My Eyes”, and there is a sing-along for the song ‘On My Way“. This disc has two set-top games, “Bone Puzzle” (too hard) and “Find Your Totem” (too slow). “Bear Legends: Native American Tales” (3 minutes) contains three stories, “How Bears Came to Be”, “The Hunting of the Great Bear”, and “The Boy Who Lived with the Bears”, all of which are told with cave paintings. With “Making Noise: The Art of Foley” (3 minutes), Jeremy Suarez visits a Foley stage to see how sound effects are made. Animator Robh Ruppel and Byron Howard examine the various animation styles used in the film and character design in “Art Review” (10 minutes). Disc 2 opens with “Paths of Discovery: The Making of Brother Bear“ (45 minutes), which gives a very in-depth look at the animation process, the voice actors, and the music for the film. There are 3 deleted scenes, all of which are shown with rough animation or storyboards. Finally, there are two never-before-heard songs, “Fishing Song” and “Transformation”, which contains lyrics which are different from those in the final film.

5 out of 10 Jackasses

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