Frustrated by his efforts to become a person of worth in his tribe, Kenai (exquisitely voiced by Joaquin Phoenix) attempts to prove himself after a bear kills his brother while defending itself. When Kenai unexpectedly succeeds in getting revenge, the spirits of the land decide to replace the soul of the dead bear with Kenai’s; forcing him to confront life as the very enemy he swore to destroy. Given the chance to redeem himself, Kenai finds a pal in cub Koda (Jeremy Suarez, “The Bernie Mac Show”), an orphan who takes to Kenai instantly. As the two roam the land to Kenai’s possible redemption, the bears learns first hand the dangers of living in a world populated by man.
2003 finds Disney animation in quite a bind. Losing audiences to computer animated projects, and seeing independent producer Pixar steal the box office crown away from the Mouse’s own in-house product, “Brother Bear” comes to theaters as one of the last traditionally animated films to shoot down the once well-lubed pipeline for some time. What a shame, since “Bear” is a rare gem from Disney that, while lacking maybe in the essential cinematic desire to test new boundaries, is at least one of their more passionate and heartfelt animated pictures since the heyday of “Aladdin” and “The Lion King.”
The success of “Bear” comes at a distinct price, and that is, just how much can you tolerate watching Disney try to call their shotr “Brother Bear” is an elaborate amalgamation of almost every recent production that Disney has had to offer. There’s the animal kingdom playset from “The Lion King,” the environmental message as heard through wise Native Americans from “Pocahontas,” and the magical transformations from “The Little Mermaid.” Throw in some pronounced, tonally correct songs from “Tarzan’s” Phil Collins, and “Bear” ends up resembling a greatest hits version of a Disney animated “classic.” It will take some work to not be slightly disgusted by the reaching the production does to grab the good vibrations that glowed from the earlier pictures, but it all washes away when “Bear” starts to eventually cook under its own inviting heat.
Comparisons to the crackerjack look of “Finding Nemo” are unfair, but “Bear” offers its own impressive animation without much assistance from CGI. Bathed in forest greens and browns, and accented by autumnal pastels, “Bear” is an outright stunning visual feast. It’s Disney’s best looking film in a long time. Of course the story is no slouch either, providing rich teachings on understanding nature’s beasts and the importance of brotherhood. Uncharacteristically, none of the lessons are pounded too heavily on the audience. The morals are simply byproducts of the deeper emotional content provided by Kenai’s little discoveries of how his actions have affected the world around him.
Since there has to be a comedic sidekick, “Brother Bear” provides some in the form of two Canadian Moose named Rutt and Tuke, who sound suspiciously like the beer-swilling brothers Bob and Doug McKenzie, former stars of “SCTV” and their own film “Strange Brew,” and played by Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas. Kids aren’t going to have as much fun as adults will with the return of the McKenzie Brothers, but rest assured, it’s wonderful to hear the boys together again. Rutt and Tuke get the lion’s share of the laughs in “Bear,” and their routines might even be opening up a new generation to the ways of Bob and Doug, with kids I overheard leaving the theater saying, “beauty, ehr” Yes it is.
“Brother Bear” isn’t a marvel in terms of screenwriting urgency, but it proves the theory that if formula is handled with care and enthusiasm, it can still work delightfully.Rating: A-