Disney keeps talking about shutting down its hand-drawn animation department altogether because recent entries like “Treasure Planet” and “Atlantis” have failed to set the box office on fire. In typically twisted Hollywood logic, Disney figures that if the computer-animated films are doing better than the hand-drawn ones, then it must be because hand-drawn animation is unpopular. It couldn’t be that the films are just BAD; no, it must be the way they’re DRAWN.
“Brother Bear” would have been a lame movie either way. The fact that a team of animators sat there and drew it rather than computerizing it doesn’t change the fact that the story is just rehashed man-and-nature, circle-of-life, colors-of-the-wind, “Pocahontas”-style conservationist claptrap. It has a human turned into an animal so he can learn a lesson (“The Emperor’s New Groove”), a talking-animal sidekick who annoys his grumpy partner (“Shrek”), a prehistoric journey involving several disparate species (“Ice Age”), a beloved relative who dies after being pushed from a great height (“The Lion King”) and missing or dead parents (every cartoon ever made).
The good news is: The kids will probably like it, and the adults will tolerate it. If that doesn’t sound like a glowing endorsement, it’s not.
Kenai (voice of Joaquin Phoenix) is a young American Indian boy who is disappointed to be designated with a bear totem. For one thing, he hates bears (they’re always stealing people’s food), and for another thing, the bear symbolizes love, which is a pansy emotion. He was hoping for the eagle of courage like his brother Sitka (D.B. Sweeney) or the wolf of wisdom like his other brother Denahi (Jason Raize). Instead he’s stuck with the stupid bear of love. *$@!& bears!
Then, to top it off, a bear is responsible for the death of a loved one. Sure, the bear was only angry because Kenai was out tormenting it, but Kenai does not take this into account. When he seeks revenge on the bear, the spirits turn him into one, so that he can see how the other half lives, as it were. The only way to become human again is to find the mountaintop where “the light touches the Earth,” commune with the spirits there, and beg them for a while.
This means a journey, and he soon meets a bear cub named Koda (Jeremy Suarez) who is keen to have a big brother and whose mom is missing. He leads Kenai to his destination, and Kenai learns valuable bear lessons along the way, such as which woods to crap in.
Also, there are two moose played by Dave Thomas and Rick Moranis, doing their old Bob and Doug McKenzie characters. They’re amusing, but aside from a few scattered chuckles, the film is more childlike and cartoony than it is funny. Again, kids will find it holds their attention, but it’s not the sort of all-ages animated film Disney has usually produced in the past. And even as just-for-kids fare, its generic characters and tired themes make it no better than mediocre.
It’s punctuated by Phil Collins songs, including a tender one where he sings, with great Phil Collins-y earnestness, “Brother Bear, I let you down.” I’m not even sure how to critique something like that.
C+ (1 hr., 25 min.; )