If Brother Bear shared only the gee-golly good intentions of every other Disney movie, it would be fine. But it boringly goes where every such film of about the last 10 years has gone before.
The sole shred of originality comes with the inevitable dramatic death scene of the main character’s brother, not his parent. He still falls from a high precipice, though. That’s one check off the very long list.
Panoramic shots of nature that land on an outcropping where there’s a ceremony going on are second-rate apings of The Lion King‘s grandeur. Phil Collins again makes world-music sounds palatable for the masses as he did in Tarzan. And just as Robin Williams transplanted his manic style to Aladdin, Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas turn their moose into Bob and Doug McKenzie.
Good thing, then, that Brother Bear is, as the Canadian brothers would say, a beauty, eh? When the film’s mythic spirits swirl down, the bright, fuzzy colors have a refreshingly out-there look. The vibrant depth and kaleidoscope of the remainder is good enough to aesthetically take our minds off the sloppy script.
It’s hard to imagine traditionally animated Disney movies ever being a total disaster. But then again, after Aladdin, it was hard to envision them settling for this sort of mediocrity. These days, Pixar is forcing Disney to keep up with more than the ongoing distribution negotiations; Brother Bear is proof its muscles are starting to cramp.
The idea is interesting even if it unerringly falls on the man and beast living in perfect harmony theme. Young Kenai (Joaquin Phoenix) is an American Indian hunter whose life is spared from a bear attack. The oldest brother Sitka (D.B. Sweeney) sacrifices himself to save Kenai and other brother Denahi (Jason Raize).
Vowing revenge, Kenai tracks the bear and kills it, only to find himself transformed into a bear by the mythical spirits his tribe worships. A young cub, Koda (Jeremy Suarez), becomes Kenai’s default guide to life as a bear. They are pursued, though, by Denahi, who believes the bear Kenai has become is the same one that killed Sitka.
Yes, it’s an animated movie, but Denahi gets so close to the bears, there’s no mistaking which is which. The bear at the beginning has narrow, mean eyes, where the Kenai bear has wide-open, emotive eyes — all the more to look forlorn with during Collins’ songs.
Unlike his superb work in Tarzan, Collins’ offerings are a small step above standard-issue. Songs like “Two Worlds” and “Son of Man” had immediacy to their hooks and never intruded on the dialogue. But at the precise moment we want to hear what Kenai says to Koda, all we hear is a sappy power ballad.
And the ending is a divisive one, at one moment appearing unconventional. But by the time it resembles the Ewok-village finale of Star Wars: Episode VI — Return of the Jedi, its derivativeness is a head-scratcher. Had this same old story been told with any innovative spark, its obvious conclusion wouldn’t have felt quite that way.
The only real life in the movie at all comes from Moranis and Thomas, peppering the movie with extended banter, phrases such as “smallish bear” and thinly veiled references to “barley and hops.” Too bad that when their characters yawn, you’ll be hard-pressed to not follow suit.