"Brother Bear" has all of the elements of an enjoyable animated epic - attractive animation, presented in a widescreen frame; talented voice artists and occasional bursts of action and comedy. Yet, the film never quite connects, simply because the story feels plugged into a formula we've seen many times before (most recently, Fox's much better "Ice Age") and the characters are never terribly compelling.
The film opens with a Native American teenager named Kenai (Joaquin Phoenix, who is a great actor but not as successful doing voice work here), whose "love" totem gets a lot of goofing from his brothers. After a bear attack kills his brother, Kenai seeks revenge, only to have the spirits change him into the bear he attacked. Rather upset about the proceedings, Kenai teams up with Koda (Jeremy Suarez) and seeks out the place where the lights touch the Earth, in order to get the answer to how to change back. Meanwhile, other brother Denahi (Jason Raize) is hunting the two bears, but apparently, no nature spirits have given him a lesson yet.
Largely uneventful and familiar, the picture has the two bears walking and talking throughout, accompanied by Phil Collins songs that spell out the plot for those who have either dozed off or went hunting for snacks. The two bears spend a good deal of their early time together irritating one another, but it's little surprise that Kenai will eventually warm up to his little bear "brother". Meanwhile, Rutt (Rick Moranis) and Tuke (Dave Thomas), a couple of moose, provide the comic relief, as do the occasional chipmunk. Moranis and Thomas are funny doing their routine, but their characters never seem well-integrated into the story, instead seemingly tossed in to get a laugh whenever the film gets too heavy. Overall, the film's humor and drama seemed like an odd fit, even though it's humor did result in a few good chuckles.
I don't want to be entirely negative about the film, though: the film's lessons of caring and respect for animals are welcome, but the story simply seems built on a few messages, with not much character depth or twists to the story. The picture could have used a little more running time and a little less reliance on the songs on the soundtrack to tell the story. While I hope the film's young audience takes away the messages of the film with them after viewing, I personally didn't find much memorable about this animated effort. The ending was a bit much, too.
VIDEO: "Brother Bear" is presented two different ways on this 2-DVD set. The first DVD includes a "family friendly" (I still can't stand that term when it regards how a movie is presented) 1.66:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation. The second DVD includes the film's original aspect ratio - although it's not quite that simple. The film's first 25 minutes or so were framed theatrically at 1.85:1, before the movie switched to the wider 2.35:1 ratio. On DVD, the presentation is windowboxed on all sides for the first portion, then widens to the full 2.35:1 frame, which is an effective way to present the changing ratio. It's a little odd to get used to at first, though, and although I understand the reasoning behind the ratio change, I thought the movie could have simply been 2.35:1 throughout.
Criticisms about the ratio change aside, I just found the 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation - which was the one I viewed for this review - just pretty good. The entire film seemed ever-so-slightly soft; while certainly not drastic, definition was consistently just South of what I'd expected.
Aside from the softness in the image, there really weren't any other major issues. A few tiny instances of compression artifacts were spotted and there was some mild edge enhancement, but no print flaws were spotted. The film's color palette was generally well-rendered, with bright hues and very nice saturation. One odd problem happened shortly after the aspect ratio change - the DVD stopped, the screen turned green (no kidding) and then the movie started over again. Upon hitting the same spot a second time, the problem didn't reoccur.
SOUND: "Brother Bear" is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 on both editions of the film, while an additional DTS 5.1 soundtrack option is included on the 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation. The film's sound mix was generally conservative, with only occasional use of the surrounds for the film's handful of action sequences. While the front soundstage did provide a nice spread for the sound, I wished the rear speakers could provide more ambience and not just pull in the occasional sound effect and musical reinforcement. Audio quality was fine, as dialogue remained crisp and clear. Not much in the way of bass.
EXTRAS: A 45-minute "making of" documentary kicks off the supplemental section on the second disc. The lengthy running time grabbed my interest, as I like lengthy, in-depth views of the detailed and often years-long process of developing and creating an animated feature. I'm still waiting for Disney to release "The Sweatbox", Trudie Styler's documentary that followed the complete reworking of the dramatic animated feature, "Kingdom of the Sun" into the more comedic "Emperor's New Groove".
While few productions were filled with as much conflict as "Groove", "Bear" is presented as smooth going by the filmmakers and voice actors. Still, there are some very interesting discussions found within this feature, as we learn more about the film's story development, casting, score work and animation progression. However, what tends to annoy a bit is the fact that this is more a series (12) featurettes glued together than a major documentary, so the subject jumps to something else every few minutes.
The deleted scenes section offers a few sequences that are in their basic form. The most surprising scene involves a squirrel character that was deleted from the film - his quest for berries seems awfully similar to Scrat, the squirrel-rat character in "Ice Age", who is hyperactively protective of his acorn.
Also available on the second DVD are "Fishing Song" (a never-before-heard deleted song) and "Transformation" song (with original Phil Collins lyrics).
Moving over to the first disc, you'll find a commentary from "Rutt" and "Tuke", the two Moose characters in the film. This makes the warning that the "commentary does not reflect the opinions of the studio" warning that comes before the film seem awfully ridiculous. While these sort of joke commentaries are never terribly funny, this is a bizarrely funny track, as voice actors Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas fill the track with in-jokes and bits that will likely make adults laugh, but go right over the heads of child viewers. Early on, one of the characters call the names of the brothers "SUV names". The two actors simply riff and improv throughout the running time of the movie. Personally, I thought this was the best thing about the set - there's some simply brilliant jokes that the two run with. The commentary can be viewed "with visuals", which means that viewers will occasionally see the outlines of the two characters as they talk about the movie.
A reel of "Koda's Outtakes" runs a couple of minutes and starts off on a high point, with Stitch from Disney's "Lilo and Stitch" sneaking his way into a scene. The rest of it gets a few laughs, but the first bit is the funniest. Next is a 10-minute piece where two of the film's animators discuss the conception and look of some of the characters. Rounding out the supplemental section of the first disc is a brief look at creating sounds in foley, a piece about Native American stories, interactive games, "Look Through My Eyes" music video and an "On My Way" sing-along.
Final Thoughts: There's a nice tale buried within "Brother Bear", but the picture lacks energy and it's surprising that six credited writers couldn't come up with a more well-developed story and fully realized characters. The film does have a following, though, and those who are fans of this Disney effort should enjoy this DVD edition, which provides satisfactory audio/video presentation and very good supplemental features.