'Brother Bear' spiritless
G, 85m Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Michael Clarke Duncan, Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas Directed by Aaron Blaise and Marcus Walker
1 / 4 stars
As one of Disney's last outings in the traditional medium of hand-drawn animation, "Brother Bear" serves as a test for Disney's ability for continued success in this medium. The signs do not look good.
Joaquin Phoenix ("Signs") provides the voice of Kenai, a headstrong American Indian teenager, recently coming of age. He receives his totem spirit as passage into manhood but is disappointed when he gets the bear of love and is told by the head shaman that love must guide his life. After some teasing from his brother Denhali (Jason Raize) he is reassured by his eldest brother Sitka (D.B. Sweeney). Sitka says, "I felt the same way when I received my totem. I mean, the eagle of guidance, what's the deal with that?"
The target audience is thus revealed, and it's not that of small children. The real audience for "Brother Bear" is people satisfied by the kind of sappy, manipulative dialogue one might expect to find in a training video for a customer service position.
After Kenai lets a bear get away with some salmon, the brothers give chase and Sitka sacrifices himself to save his brothers from the bear. Afterward, Kenai is magically transformed into a bear and together with the loudmouth cub Koda (Jeremy Suarez), he must learn how to be a man by being a bear.
The story has obvious immediate problems. "Brother Bear" borrows from past Disney successes like "The Lion King" and hopes to repeat its success with much more bland material. During the opening sequence, as the Phil Collins-penned main theme, "Great Spirits," (sung by Tina Turner) blares and American Indians dance in celebration, one cannot help but recall the opening sequence of "The Lion King." This time around, however, it's far less interesting. While the animation is decent, it pales in comparison to recent films such as "Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron," which was released by DreamWorks Studios - not a Disney affiliate.
"Brother Bear" tosses in Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas in homage to their characters from the comedy "Strange Brew." Here they return in elk form for the comedy relief. While their banter will leave the little ones giggling, it fails to be smart enough to please the older siblings or parents.
The impending box office disappointment of "Brother Bear" will only back Disney President Michael Eisner's current stance that traditional, 2-D hand-drawn animation is a dying art form, as he told author and editor David Koenig of mouseplanet.com and The Merchant Magazine. Sure, Eisner's only seeing green, especially with "Finding Nemo," the entirely computer-animated year's top grosser so far (and eighth highest all-time total in the U.S. box office), according to the Internet Movie Database.
Though Disney distributed "Finding Nemo," it came out of Pixar Studios. In the main office of Pixar Animation Studios, there is a sign that reads: "Story is King," according to the "Monsters Inc." DVD. Essentially, the method of animation can only take the product so far. Without a good story, there's not a good product. Michael Eisner should watch "Cowboy Bebop" or the Oscar-winning "Spirited Away," both from Japan, and then try to say, "2-D animation is dead." Quentin Tarantino's new film "Kill Bill: Volume 1" debuted at No. 1 in its opening week and a segment of that movie is done entirely in 2-D animation.
The ailments of "Brother Bear" have little to do with the technology. No matter how you wrap it, there's still a bad gift inside.
Overall, "Brother Bear" seems like it's being stretched to please too many people, whether they are studio bigwigs or the awaiting audience. It sounds like "Brother Bear" talks down to kids and patronizes them, rather than entertaining them. Anyone with a shred of film-savvy will roll his or her eyes at the banal dialogue and ridiculous premise.
The film lacks the heart of "The Little Mermaid" and the biting wit of "The Emperor's New Groove." Disney's done wonders in the past with excellent films like "Beauty and the Beast" and "The Lion King," but "Brother Bear" reveals just how inept and deluded Disney has become in its filmmaking.