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Brother Bear

It's the end of Disney Feature Animation as we know it. Don't bother protesting - CEO Michael Eisner has already declared it to be so.

Technically, the studio still has one more 2D attempt, Home on the Range, but they're rushing it out in early April in an effort to clean house. So it may not be fair to put a heavy weight upon Brother Bear, but it's unavoidable. If Disney's 2D animation future has any hope at all (besides cheap sequels from the TV division), it all really rests here.

At first, the film looks like it might be up to the task. Establishing an old wise man (Harold Gould) telling the story to the youth of his tribe, the film dissolves into some incredibly beautiful art direction.

Visually sumptuous in its depiction of prehistoric Canada, the initial scenes are daring for traditional Disney storytelling. They still flirt with the fantastic, mostly due to the narration explaining some of the tribal myths, but for the most part, Brother Bear starts out with a solid grounding in realism. (And again, incredible backgrounds in the vein of Maxfield Parrish and others from The Brandywine School of Illustration - a focus of animation head Roy E. Disney, as he tried to insert that look into Treasure Planet, too.)

When three brothers interact with nature, it's not in a typical cartoony way. In an exciting confrontation with a bear, this is no jamboree. The creature snarls, growls, and generally looks like a real bear in all its imposing majesty.

But of course, you've seen the ads or the posters, and you know this just doesn't last. When Kenai (Joaquin Phoenix) tracks down and kills the bear responsible for his brother's death, he receives a lesson from the spirits of his ancestors. Even the transformation scene has a nice sense of awe to it; we may be veering straight into fantasy, but in a way that respects the people being represented.

And then the bear version of Kenai turns around. Hey, look at that strangely expressive face, those big, googly eyes and that misshapen but cuddly snout. Cripes! It's a CARTOON BEAR!

Not that the third brother, Denahi (Jason Raize), notices. Despite the fact that he tracked a real bear and now believes it to have killed Kenai, he assumes that this new freak of nature is the same beast. From that point on, in fact, everything but the fish have this new more anthropomorphic mein.

Perhaps this is just Kenai's viewpoint, you might argue. Since he sees through bear eyes but with a human mind, he must be compensating. Nope. In flashback, the first bear looks exactly the same even when other bears talk about her. It's just weird, the first little sign of a movie not exactly sure where it wants to go but darned sure that it's going to follow the paths of as many other successful Disney products as it can.

This weakness doesn't destroy Brother Bear. It just leaves one with the unsettled feeling that you almost saw something that reached for greatness. Instead, it settles for a meandering good-naturedness with a little life-lesson attached.

Granted, this allows for the revival of a personal favorite comedy team, the MacKenzie Brothers (Dave Thomas and Rick Moranis), now in the guise of a pair of moose. They wander in and out cracking wise in their low-key way, effectively transplanting their characters to the animal kingdom. It's amusing but at odds with the more somber set-up.

Maybe the powers-that-be felt they'd learned a lesson from Pocahontas. That film dabbled in the mystical, but featured cartoony animals that never spoke. By Disney's standards, the film bombed, and of course it couldn't be because it simply wasn't very good.

So again, the movie reaches into the bag of tricks from past successes. Phil Collins songs intrude upon the soundtrack, booming with percussive intensity. On the surface, it's not a bad choice, as it sort of fits with the idea of a primitive culture's music. But if you never hear another Phil Collins song again, you've still heard them all. Some of it gets disguised with other artists singing, including The Blind Boys of Alabama, but hey, it's still the Tarzan effect. One upbeat number plays over a sequence of the bear equivalent of the land of milk and honey - all the better to map out a future waterpark attraction. Sorry, it's hard not to be cynical about this sort of thing.

Just as it's hard not to see the left hand doesn't know what the right hand is doing. Why does Eisner see no point in 2D animation? Because of the success of Pixar, whose work Disney distributes. Heck, Brother Bear even copies a gag from Finding Nemo and gets it wrong. We all know perfectly well that seagulls are saying "MINE," not "FISH." Really, the problem is that Disney doesn't seem to grasp that Pixar succeeds because, well, that studio carries through on its promises to challenge our imagination.

And so this is the way Disney Feature Animation ends. Not with a bang, but with a growl that should have been much more defiant.


Derek McCaw

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