Admittedly, it was an animated production glued together by scraps from other Disney hits, but 2003's "Brother Bear" knocked me down in ways few of the Mouse House's offerings have been able to do since I was 10 years old. It was a splash of thrilling autumnal colors, jubilant character development, and confident storytelling that ignored many Disney crutches (chiefly a villain, along with singing and dancing), and preferred to lead with its heart. Over the years I've revisited the film several times, and today find it to be one of the stronger entries in Disney's towering animated empire.
While not racking up huge box office numbers in America, "Brother Bear" charmed enough on DVD to warrant a direct-to-video sequel, which is both a promising and lamentable idea. Where the first film was an animated feature, the sequel is simply a cartoon.
First and foremost, "Bear 2" is missing the majestic hand-animated woodsy vistas to backdrop Kenai and Koda's adventure; the nuanced and trembling voice work from Joaquin Phoenix; the layered, widescreen score by Mark Mancina and pop song interstitials from Phil Collins (Melissa Etheridge substitutes here); and a penetrating story about friendship and the mystical wonders of life that elevated "Bear."
What we're eventually handed in "Bear 2" are elements that show a step down in effort from the first film, but still allows time to be spent with old friends. The film remains a charmer, even with a brittle acting job from Patrick Dempsey and a Saturday morning cartoon level of animation. "Bear 2" is a minor diversion, and the filmmakers have lightened up the material substantially to appeal to a younger crowd. Let's put it this way: the original film took its time with the Inuit characters, respecting traditions (even the invented ones), and placing emphasis on careful animation to express the splendor of the spiritual world; "Brother Bear 2" brings in Wanda Sykes to play a village elder.
Regardless of the loosened standards, "Bear 2" still affects with its story of dormant romance, cleverly finding ways to challenge Kenai's decision in the last film to become a bear. Agreeably voiced by Mandy Moore, the addition of Nita adds the only conflict the film needs. Again, the absence of a mustache-twirling villain is truly something praiseworthy. Equally hard to resist are returning moose Rutt and Tuke, played to the McKenzie Brothers hilt by Dave Thomas and the sorely missed Rick Moranis. Since the theme of love is in the air, the boys have their own objects of moose desire, played appropriately by some more "SCTV" cast members, Andrea Martin and Catherine O'Hara.
As money-grabbing animated product goes, "Brother Bear 2" rests nicely on a lowered expectation level, and is hardly an offensive affront to the first film. The texture and polish is deeply missed, but the characters are so strong and engaging, it still entertains.