If you want to raise eyebrows around critic-y circles, one of your options is to mention how you truly believe "Brother Bear" to be one of Disney's best efforts in quite some time. I was quick to give it praise upon its release in 2003, and I'm just as quick to defend it today, and to heck with those raised eyebrows. Despite its lackluster response from audiences and critics alike, it remains a stunning, heartfelt work - yes, one of the studio's finest movies in recent memory.
So although Disney's track record for direct-to-video sequels has been - how to put this politely? - spotty at best, I've been actively looking forward to "Brother Bear 2" for a while now. It turns out that "Brother Bear 2" is, on a story level, about as unimaginative and unimpressive as every other Disney DTV effort lately, yet it is also, on a filmmaking level, far above the shoddy work of those very same sequels.
Let's get the bad stuff out of the way. For the sequel, we get some half-baked yarn about Nita, a friend from Kenai's childhood; she's set to be married to some brawny hunter type, only the Spirits seem to suggest her childhood bond with Kenai is her real destiny. The local shaman tells her that she needs to find Kenai (who, if you'll recall, is now a bear), and the two of them need to take a necklace he gave to her long ago and burn it at a specific place and at a specific time, the ritual thus ending their connection and freeing her to marry. Kenai reluctantly agrees to the journey, and along the way, they discover that maybe, just maybe, the Spirits are right about this connection thing.
As a story, it's flat and lifeless and all too by-the-numbers. "Brother Bear" taught important lessons about understanding others; "Brother Bear 2" teaches us that if you don't plan on marrying your childhood sweetie, the Spirits might send an earthquake to wake your behind right up. Not the same thing. Key characters from the original film, such as Kenai's brother and the mystic shaman, are missing, having been replaced here by Nita's bickering aunts and a shaman voiced by Wanda Sykes, who's stuck doing the same sassy role she always does. (She's not a shaman, you see, she's a "sha-woman!" Yawn.)
Nita and Kenai's adventure is depressingly generic - there's a run-in with some thieving raccoons, and a bit about Nita's fear of water, and some obligatory plot points that separate our main characters only to reunite them right on cue. Even the lead voice cast (Patrick Dempsey replaces Joaquin Phoenix in the lead role, while an anonymous-sounding Mandy Moore plays Nita) is bland; only Jeremy Suarez, returning as the young cub Koda, puts any real energy into his performance.
Ah, but then we come to Rutt and Tuke, those lovably dopey moose played by Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas, effectively reprising their "SCTV" MacKenzie Brothers characters in moose form. They're back, and although their subplot is disappointing (spurred on by a bit of spring fever, they're out to woo two "moosettes"), their comic timing is still impeccable, earning plenty of giggles along the way. And in a nice touch, none other than Catherine O'Hara and Andrea Martin are brought in to play the moosettes. It should be no surprise that their scenes together click quite well, however brief.
The real key to the film's success over its mediocre storyline is its mix of wonderful animation, lovely music, and a strong amount of heart. Let's start with the latter first: Despite a sloppy plot, the characters are well crafted, and Rich Burns' screenplay gets us to truly feel for them. The story might be pedestrian, but the way the movie builds on these characters as people (and animals) genuinely worth our affection is notable.
On top of that, we get a solid song score from Melissa Etheridge, replacing Phil Collins on soundtrack duty. A good song can make an average movie moment impressive, a fact on display more than once here; these are genuinely touching pieces that enhance the film. While as a whole, they're not on the level of Collins' work on the first film (yes, I am in fact an admirer of Collins' Disney work, and yes, I know how dorky that makes me sound), several individual tunes are very striking.
Finally, the animation. Disney's DTV work has been fairly consistent in being noticeably lesser. A few movies have broken from this norm ("Return to Never Land," the "Lion King" and "Lilo & Stitch" follow-ups), but for the most part, the rush job-ness of these projects is almost always a major downside. But here, surprisingly, the animation staff actually took the time to make sure things looked as good as they did first time around. Granted, it's not as ambitious, but it's still rather breathtaking. DTV cartooning isn't supposed to be this solid, people.
These last few factors are what help make "Brother Bear 2" better than expected. The story fails to impress, but everything else adds up in all the right ways to make up for it. The makers of "Brother Bear 2" break the curse of the Disney sequel and turn in a welcome effort.
As mentioned, the animation is top notch, and this being a brand new work, the video presentation (1.78:1 widescreen with anamorphic enhancement) is quite stunning. Colors are bright, lines are crisp, artifacts are nonexistent. You couldn't ask for a better looking DTV product.
The film doesn't require much from the surround feature, yet we still get impressive soundtracks in both 5.1 Dolby Surround and DTS Surround. Take your pick. French and Spanish tracks are also included, as are optional English captions for the hearing impaired.
The disc comes with Disney's "Fast Play," which allows the movie, previews, and extras to play straight through, if your kids aren't up to remote control use yet. Fortunately, you can bypass it by clicking the "menu" button.
"Behind the Music of Brother Bear 2" is an eight-minute piece on Etheridge's involvement in the film. As fluff pieces go, it's not that bad - watching Etheridge give an acoustic performance of one of the film's key songs is a delight - but it's also has too much back-patting to be of much use beyond a one-time glance.
"Trample Off, Eh?" is an interactive game that has kids answering questions (on everything from science and nature to trivia from the movie) and earning points for Rutt and Tuke. It's cute, if aimed at the youngest viewers.
A batch of Disney previews (many of which are the same as those that play before the movie) rounds out the set.
While not nearly as memorable as its predecessor, "Brother Bear 2" has plenty going for it, making for a pleasant surprise indeed. Recommended.