½/**** Image B+ Sound A Extras B-
screenplay by Tab Murphy and Lorne Cameron & David Hoselton and Steve Bencich & Ron J. Friedman
directed by Aaron Blaise & Bob Walker
by Walter Chaw Deeply unentertaining and, at its heart of hearts, a quintessential example of a dishonest picture, Disney's Brother Bear is rock-bottom entertainment destined to be Pixar's best bargaining chip. It plugs bears and moose into a formula already plumbed Disney-style with lions and meerkats (and once before again with Earth Children stereotypes of Native Americans), boiling an entire culture and mythology down to an insultingly reductive pastiche and taking swipes at women along the way to telling one of the most inapplicable codas in the history of fable: "The story of a boy who became a man by becoming a bear."
So it's feckless, and it's stupid, but it's also ugly: the animation is lifeless and its conception, from flat backgrounds to those soft Disney faces that translate particularly well to plush manifestations and Happy Meal doodads, screams of laziness. There's a mock grandiosity about it, and a few tunes by Phil Collins and Tina Turner that absolutely destroy the already questionable pace of the thing--"screeching halt" doesn't come close to describing the phenomenon, and a screenplay that boasts as its only possibly funny moment a pair of moose played by the McKenzie Brothers (Rick Moranis, Dave Thomas) suggesting that they might celebrate their brotherhood with a little of the brew.
Kenai (voice of Joaquin Phoenix)--pronounced "Keen Eye"--is given a care bear for a spirit guide, given endless grief for it by his macho brothers, and given a reason to worry when his vengeance-inspired murder of a mother bear earns him a tenure as an anthropomorphized bear himself. Worry because although his shaman grandma (Arthur Miller's sister Joan Copeland) knows who he is, she neglects to tell his brother Sitka (D.B. Sweeney), who has a little ursacide, himself, in his almond eyes. Meanwhile, bear Kenai adopts a cub pointedly named Koda (Jeremy Suarez)--a lispy little tyke that is a little like every other spunky Disney child but even more like Scrappy-Doo--and learns in the process the importance of nurturing and shorthand through bad pop song montages.
The entire production is marked by a laggard, plug-and-play mentality, an undeniable feeling that the only thing anyone had in mind was to make a Disney cartoon whose predictable box office is not so predictable anymore since the crash-and-burn of Treasure Planet and DreamWorks' Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron. Long overdue, it seems that there's finally a requirement that children's entertainment respect a standard of quality, explaining to some extent why it is that Brother Bear is so perversely dedicated to robbing the graves of Disney hits past. Animated films have finally become commercial in the fullest connotative definition of the term, with The Little Mermaid the genre's Star Wars: the salvation and the ruin. As it stands, Brother Bear joins this year's focus on pictures that sport as a central gimmick the physical transformation of a protagonist through rage--curious from a sociological standpoint, tepid from every other standpoint.
Without a single Native American in its main cast or list of screenwriters, it should come as no surprise that Brother Bear is so howlingly insensitive, guilty of a paternalism that casts the plight of all minorities in film back a few decades. On a more proximate level, the film presents its world as full of sentient animals before indulging in what can only be described now as a sadistic slaughter of salmon by its coterie of cuddly grizzlies. Why is every creature in this world capable of speech and thought except for the bear's prey, the corpses of which are used in a grotesque puppet show and as the "conch" in a storytelling roundelay? It's not a minor thing in a picture aimed at children, but rather the sort of carelessness that should, by all rights, inspire uncomfortable questions. We're a long way here from the convention-busting courage of Lilo & Stitch. Originally published: November 1, 2003.
by Bill Chambers As a matter of "family-friendly widescreen," Brother Bear is cropped to 1.66:1 on the initial platter of the film's THX-certified 2-Disc Special Edition--so thin black bars are friendlier to families than thick black bars, and artistic integrity is unfriendly to families, period? Got it. (I'd be a lot more tolerant of the practice if Disney had the guts to call it what it is, "Dilettante-friendly widescreen.") Considering it also lacks the DTS option of the companion platter's presentation, Disc 1 can join your coaster set with the reconfigured Finding Nemo (frankly, so can Disc 2, but I'm not here to keep flogging Brother Bear per se), although I guess I'm obliged to outline its supplementary material. "Koda's Outtakes" (3 mins.) is a seriously unfunny montage of mock blunders and gaffes, "takes" ruined by farts and such--thanks again, Pixar, for starting that annoying trend. Joining this extra in the egregious department are the "Look Through My Eyes" video, a bouncing-ball sing-along for "On My Way," and a brief collection of myths (read in a patented soothing/patronizing voice) called "Bear Legends: Native American Tales" (3 mins.).
"Making Noise: The Art of Foley" (3 mins.) finds abrasive child actor Jeremy Suarez tutored in the art of creating sound effects (on a practically condemned property) by foley artist John Roesch (foley demonstrations actually never cease to tickle me), and in "Art Review," production designer Robh Ruppel and character designer Byron Howard spend ten minutes narrating a slideshow of concept art that's fascinating for the level of homogenization exposed--ideas don't evolve in the Disney process so much as get sandpapered down. "Rutt and Tuke" (a.k.a. Dave Thomas and Rick Moranis) contribute a film-length commentary (complete with optional Lion King 1½-esque silhouettes) that's relatively subversive: Thomas seems more diplomatic about Brother Bear than Moranis, leading the latter to essentially undercut every polite observation the former makes. In other words, freed from the shackles of scripted dialogue, the "SCTV" alums Bob & Doug their way through the picture--all that's missing are the words "beer" and "hoser." "Sneak peeks" at the Aladdin and Mary Poppins Special Editions, Chicken Little, The Incredibles, Mulan II, "Brother Bear for Gameboy Advance," and "Walt Disney World's Magical Gatherings" round out the disc.
|Top: Pre- and post-transformation, family-friendly aspect ratio as it appears (sans overscan) on a 16x9 display
Bottom: Pre- and post-transformation, original theatrical aspect ratio as it appears (sans overscan) on a 16x9 display
Over on Disc 2 is where you'll find the film in its correct aspect ratio(s): the 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer begins window-boxed to 1.85:1, then "opens up" to fill the sides of the 'scope frame post-transformation. The technique is nothing new (The Horse Whisperer and Galaxy Quest are two recent features to have employed it), but I don't believe that any film prior to Brother Bear had ever replicated the gimmick for the home-viewing audience. Not too long ago, Disney announced they would henceforth press widescreen titles only once, so if you're a Brother Bear fanatic or simply believe in posterity, it's probably good policy to nab this package while you know you can. The transfer itself is not the studio's best, mainly due to some noticeable compression artifacts and eye-straining colours; likewise, the 5.1 mix (in DTS and Dolby Digital) is not as hyperactive as one has come to expect from a modern Disney soundtrack. Music sounds warm (warmest in DTS), though, and vocals clear as day, while LFE channel usage is less anaemic than I've heard tell.
The disc additionally includes a 45-minute doc ("Paths of Discovery: The Making of Brother Bear") in which Moranis looks altogether too tanned and a couple of mountain men directors toe the Disney line by rejoicing in the corporate sterilization of their original vision for the project. Since one can view this making-of piecemeal, I recommend skipping straight to the sections regarding the music--the Phil Collins tunes may suggest hackwork, but it's interesting to hear their author fearlessly critiqued by Disney execs and co-composer Mark Mancina, who took Collins, assigned songwriting and scoring chores for the first time in his long career, under his wing. (Chris Montan of Walt Disney Music classically remarks that "a native speaker who also spoke very good English" translated Collins's final number into Inuit.) Three elided scenes (two in the form of thumbnail sketches), one of which was obviously scrapped for its resemblance to the prologue of Ice Age, are each prefaced by talking-head introductions from a combination of co-directors Aaron Blaise and Bob Walker or producer Chuck Williams; a temp track of the deleted "Fishing Song" (with storyboard accompaniment) and a subtitled version of the "Transformation Song" finish out the set. Originally published: March 30, 2004.