Sunday, January 20, 2013

Brother Bear (2003) - Nice Lessons from this Disney Movie About Acting Responsibly

Brother Bear: Nature is Calling

Film poster Brother Bear 2003

During the Disney Renaissance that stretched from "The Little Mermaid" to "Tarzan," Walt Disney Feature Animation maintained an upbeat, positive tone in almost all of its Disney movies. If characters weren't singing positive tunes, they were cracking jokes or getting even with someone who had wronged them. When you left the theater, you were either marvelling at how funny or moving Robin Williams or James Woods or Jason Alexander had been, or you were humming classic tunes composed by Howard Ashman or Alan Menken. Well, "Brother Bear" (2003), helmed by first-time feature directors Aaron Blaise and Robert Walker, wasn't overwhelmingly funny (though it did have some humor), and it didn't have very memorable songs unless you really, really like Phil Collins. What "Brother Bear" did have was an admirable message about acting responsibly towards the world in which we live. It is one of the lower-key animated Disney movies and largely forgotten, but remains worthwhile for the right audience. The decline of Disney movies from the heights of the 1990s was becoming obvious by this point, but "Brother Bear" still possesses a thoughtful charm about it that many of the lighter-themed, more popular Disney movies lack.
Kenai, Denahi, Sitka Brother Bear 2003
"And for our next song...."

It is North America some time shortly after the last ice age. Three brothers, Kenai (Joaquin Phoenix), Denahi (Jason Raize) and Sitka (D.B. Sweeney), are preparing for the sacred ceremony in which Kenai becomes a man. It is time for Kenai to receive his sacred totem, which turns out to be a bear of love. This means that in order to become a man within the tribe, Kenai must prove that he can live his life with love, and all that love implies. Kenai is upset, desiring something more heroic, and believing that all bears are thieves. It turns out to be the perfect totem, though for Kenai has a lot to learn about love, bears and everything else in the wild.
The brothers kayaking Brother Bear 2003
Disney sure knows how to make living in a frozen Hell look like fun

Somwhat ironically, a bear then steals some salmon from the tribe. The three brothers pursue the offending bear onto a glacier. During a battle against the bear, Sitka sacrifices his life to save his brothers. The bear survives and escapes, and Kenai makes it his mission to hunt the bear down and kill it despite his remaining brother's belief that the bear was not at fault. Kenai tracks the bear up to a mountain lake and needlessly kills it. Sitka, now a powerful spirit in the form of a bald eagle, watches all this and decides that Kenai needs to learn a lesson (apparently the totem wasn't enough), so he turns Kenai into the dead bear. This way, Kenai can atone for his wrongdoing and understand the bear's point of view. Denahi, meanwhile, now thinks that the bear (inhabited by Kenai) has killed both of his brothers, so he vows to track the bear now inhabited by Kenai down and kill it, just as Kenai did (perhaps Denahi needs a lesson, too?).
Kenai in human form Brother Bear 2003
"Bears are nothing but thieves."

Kenai, in the bear form, gets caught in a raging river and swept down through some rapids. Tanana (Joan Copeland), the shaman of Kenai's tribe, who somehow knows what is going on, heals Kenai, then advises Kenai to go back up into the mountains to find Sitka and admit that he was wrong for killing the bear. Tanana then disappears, and Kenai sets off on his new mission to find Sitka. In his new form, Kenai discovers that he can understand the speech of the wildlife around him. Kenai soon meets two brother moose, Rutt and Tuke (Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas, reprising their roles as the comic Canadian Mckenzie brothers). Proceeding on his way, Kenai gets caught in a trap but is freed by a chatty bear cub named Koda (Jeremy Suarez). Kenai agrees to go with Koda to a nearby salmon run, after which Koda promises to take Kenai back to the mountain.
Koda Kenai Brother Bear 2003
"Are you trying to be annoying?"
Denahi still is hunting Kenai, who tries and fails to kill Kenai several times. Kenai and Koda run into Rutt and Tuke again, and they all catch a ride on some wooly mammoths, which speeds up their journey to the salmon run. Escaping Denahi again, the two bears reach the salmon run and meet a large group of bears. The leader is an amiable sort named Tug (Michael Clark Duncan), and Kenai feels at home with the other bears. While staying with them, Koda tells a story which makes Kenai realize that he was the one who killed Koda's mother.
Koda Kenai Brother Bear 2003
Very lovely visuals in "Brother Bear," like a painting

Kenai leaves out of guilt, but Koda finds him. When Kenai tells Koda the truth, Koda is the one who leaves, leaving Kenai on his own to find the mountain. Koda runs into Rutt and Tuke again, and they inspire Koda to go back and forgive Kenai. Denahi then shows up and is about to kill Kenai, but Koda steals Denahi's hunting gear. Kenai then helps Koda, which causes Sitka to realize that Kenai has learned his lesson. Sitka changes Kenai back into human form, but then Kenai has a big decision to make as to whether he wishes to live as a man with his tribe, or as a bear with Tug and his group.
Koda river Brother Bear 2003
Koda gets his fish

The animation of "Brother Bear" is hand-drawn, with computer graphics used for discrete scenes such as the salmon run and a caribou stampede. The animators spent a great deal of time outdoors, sketching and painting in Florida (not much like Alaska, granted, but it does have animals, too), in order to get the details of the animals right. "Brother Bear" is in 2D, and uses a neat trick of changing the film's aspect ratio when Kenai is transformed into a bear, broadening the film out and using brighter, more vivid colors. Thus, you can tell what stage of "Brother Bear" you are at with a quick glance, as everything seems livelier and more lush after Kenai changes into a bear.
Rutt, Tuke, Kenai Brother Bear 2003
"We camp here tonight!"
Phil Collins, who did the well-received soundtrack for "Tarzan," returns to do the same for "Brother Bear," with Tina Turner singing the opening and a Bulgarian women's chorus adding a very fine, moving number. The melodies of the various songs are tuneful enough, but the lyrics strike some people as a bit trite. If you liked the "Tarzan" score, you'll probably like this one as well, but the "Brother Bear" songs often sound less inspired than in "Tarzan." Mark Mancina once again adds the background music, as in "Tarzan."
Kenai Koda Brother Bear 2003
Hail the call of nature!
There are many people who love this quirky little black sheep of the recent Disney movie oevure. "Brother Bear" has the advantage of being highly respectful of its roots, the native peoples of Alaska and the Yukon. "Brother Bear's" message is simple, direct powerful and sound. On the flip side, there really isn't much new in "Brother Bear - the songs and background music are reminiscent of "Tarzan," the visuals are pretty enough but hardly astounding (natural vistas like this are one area in which  live action shots soundly trump any animation), and the plot is so straightforward and "positive" that a blind man could see the resolution with his cane about half an hour in. There are over two dozen writing credits on "Brother Bear," and having that many cooks stirring the broth usually means trouble.
Kenai Koda Brother Bear 2003
Time for a decision by Kenai
Disney movies dressed up as public service announcements will always find those who love them, there's no question about that - it is the other 95% of the possible audience that may skip this particular Disney movie and wait for one with a little more tension, edge and overall significance for a larger group of characters. The problem isn't that someone's personal spiritual journey toward enlightenment and understanding isn't important, because it is - it is that not everyone feels they need to learn these same lessons or are lacking the understanding gained by Kenai, and if you already know a lesson's subject matter, the temptation to stay home in bed and rest rather than going to class to hear something you already know can be, well determinative.
DVD Brother Bear 2003
I love DVD artwork, and this is lovely
The bottom line is that "Brother Bear" is a beautiful, moving film for a reasonably limited audience that can't get enough of its off-beat humor and paean to wildlife and the spirits of the outdoors. Brother Bear's earnest tone and noble portrayals perhaps makes up a tiny bit for the howls of politically correct outrage that greeted "Pocahontas" some years earlier, and Disney is very sensitive to criticism. "Brother Bear"'s overall performance (including home video sales) justified a sequel, "Brother Bear 2," released direct-to-video in 2006. "Brother Bear itself turned into a major hit on the home video market, selling millions of units (that perhaps is where "Brother Bear" should have been released in the first place). There also was a video game of "Brother Bear" for Game Boy Advance and Windows. One practical benefit of "Brother Bear" (which may account for some of those home video sales) is that its mellow tone is a capital way to soothe a rambunctious child, probably even better than "Spongebob."
Koda, Kenai northern lights Brother Bear 2003
"It's a good thing we're bears, or I'd be pretty darn cold being out in Alaska at night!"

If an animated film about the spirits of the forest is your thing, "Brother Bear" is the film for you! Just about anyone can enjoy "Brother Bear" if they are in the mood for a tranquil, inner journey. "Brother Bear" is out on Blu-ray now, that's the package to get. Otherwise, if perhaps you are looking for some action or romance or a princess or whatever else is on your agenda, "Brother Bear" is one Disney movie you may safely skip and not feel as if you really missed a forgotten treasure.

Below is the trailer for "Brother Bear."



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