Disney `Bear' is barely bearable

MovieReview

November 01, 2003|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

If, as industry scuttlebutt suggests, the suits at Disney have decreed that traditional animation is dead, Brother Bear is but the latest feature to suggest they have no one to blame but themselves.

Lackluster in narrative and in no way original or innovative, the movie is pretty much generic Disney, a film about universal brotherhood stitched together from parts that worked better in other films. Brother Bear contains echoes of The Lion King (in fact, echoes might be too weak a word), Pocahontas, Tarzan, even Bambi, and somehow convinces itself that such a greatest-hits package is what audiences are looking for.

Kenai (voiced by Joaquin Phoenix) is one of three Inuit brothers enjoying their oneness with nature and their intrinsic connection to the spirit world. They're a boisterous trio (we get to watch them ride the rapids in a high-speed free-for-all that brings to mind the over-adrenalized tree-swinging of Tarzan), but wise big brother Sitka keeps things from getting out of hand. Until the day that Kenai's carelessness leads Sitka to sacrifice his life for his brother's.

Various vengeance missions follow, and ultimately Kenai angers the spirit world enough that he is transformed into that which he despises most, a bear. Told that the only way to reverse the spell is to undertake a journey to the mountain where the earth meets the sky, he sets out - and soon picks up an unwelcome companion, a lost bear cub named Koda (The Bernie Mac Show's Jeremy Suarez).

Along the way, Kenai learns about friendship and responsibility, not to mention love and sacrifice (as well as catching salmon with your paws).

Some of the Brother Bear animation is downright gorgeous, especially early scenes that invoke the spirit world and a later procession involving woolly mammoths. But there's nothing here story-wise that hasn't been played out umpteen times before, and even the animation fails at key moments, slipping from inspired to run-of-the-mill.

Here's how bereft of originality Brother Bear is: It depends for comic relief on war horses Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas to drag out their old Bob and Doug McKenzie characters from the glory days of SCTV - which were more than 20 years ago - and graft them onto bumbling moose named Rutt and Tuke.

And let's not even talk about the paint-by-numbers songs contributed by Phil Collins.

These are sad days indeed for Disney's once-proud animation division, which seems to have run almost completely out of energy and inspiration (last year's Lilo & Stitch was a welcome stretch). Unfortunately, the blame is being pinned on the medium, not the product: Seeing the huge grosses realized by Pixar's computer-animated projects, Disney has decided to pretty much abandon traditional animation after next year's Down on the Farm (which looks promising, judging by the trailer that precedes Brother Bear).

Anyone who thinks Pixar's Toy Story, Monsters, Inc. and Finding Nemo succeeded because of their computer animation - and that seems to include people at both Disney and Dreamworks, which apparently also is dropping traditional animation - are mistaken. Woody and Buzz, Mike Wuzowski and Sully, Nemo and Dora - all were great characters in wonderful stories. They could have been drawn in crayon on the backs of paper bags, and people would have appreciated them.

It's a shame, bordering on tragedy, that a medium that soared with such characters as Pinocchio, the Little Mermaid, Snow White and Dumbo could fall by the wayside for want of a little creative inspiration.

SUN SCORE **1/2

Brother Bear

Starring the voices of Joaquin Phoenix, Rick Moranis, Dave Thomas

Directed by Aaron Blaise and Robert Walker

Rated G

Released by Walt Disney Pictures

Time 85 minutes

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