You can’t fault Disneys latest animated film, BROTHER BEAR, for the message it wants to send to all the kiddies out there. That would be a philosophy of respect for all nature’s creatures and of taking responsibility for your own actions are both worthy lessons. Alas, the execution is 90% generic and 100% unfunny.
The story is set in the primordial wastes of the Pacific Northwest, a time when mammoths still roamed, saber-toothed tigers still slashed, and the native population was in tune with magic. The filmmakers have gone to quite a bit of trouble in creating some lovely animation, especially the Northern Lights where ancestor spirits live, and in accurately depicting the artifacts and costumes of Native American culture. However, when it comes to depicting the actual Native Americans, in this case three parentless brothers, they’ve taken their cue from the more lifeless sitcoms of the present day, the ones that pop up for a few episodes and then fade away from their own sense of boredom.
The brothers themselves fall into the usual categories, wise oldest brother Sitka, impetuous youngest brother Kenai (voiced by Joaquin Phoenix), and middle brother Danahi, whose purpose is to pick on Kenai. We meet them just before the Kenai’s manhood ceremony, when the village wise woman, after communion with the spirits, will award him his totem, an animal spirit that represents the path he should follow in life. When it turns out to be a bear, signifying love, his brothers tease him and he feels like there’s been some terrible mistake. There has been, but it’s not the totem, it’s the food that Kenai left out and that’s been stolen by bears. A hunt ensues, including a nicely rendered showdown with the bear, costing Sitka his life and forcing Kenai to see the world through a bear’s eyes. Literally. He wakes up after a ferocious battle with a bear to find himself sporting paws and a tail. He’s also forced to take care of a lost bear cub, an annoying little guy who won’t stop talking but does have the scoop on how bears should behave. Something that will come in handy as Kenai tries to get to the mountain when the light touches the ground, which is where everything will be sorted out.
Kenai may be awakening to the wonders of the animal kingdom, but we in the audience are being put to sleep with writing that fails to entertain. The happy woodland creatures, great and small, are saddled with dialogue that would get fail to get a chuckle from a laugh track. The best of the bunch are a pair of Canadian moose, who complete every sentence with and eh and practice a peculiar sort of yoga when not getting their horns entangled and bickering with each other. They’re not funny per se, but they are less uninspired than the rest of the fauna.
Oddly enough, it all leads to a surprisingly emotional climax as the three brothers are reunited in various incarnations and choices must be made. It leads me to believe that if Disney had had the chutzpah to make a straight dramatic animated film with a few comic touches, they might have had a classic on their hands. And I know that they could have dredged up a few laughs because the clips that run during the closing credits are genuinely funny. Where were those writers during the script meetings? As it stands, BROTHER BEAR is strictly kiddie fodder.