Brother Bear (2003)Rated G.
Starring the voices of Joaquin Phoenix, Jeremy Suarez, Jason Raize, Rick Moranis, Dave Thomas, D.B. Sweeney, Joan Copeland, Michael Clarke Duncan.
LVJeff's Rating: 6/10
Photo ©Walt Disney Pictures. All rights reserved.
Some sad news floating around these days relates to the proposed "death" of 2-D animated movies. Discouragingly, the recent poor box office showings of Disney's Treasure Planet and the DreamWorks offering, Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas, have been blamed on their format as opposed to their content. I've heard reports that Disney is switching over fully to cg-animation, with no new traditionally animated projects in the works. Because I'm a big fan of the painted cel, such a possibility depresses me.
And now, perhaps, the only chance that a future 2-D animated movie might get produced rests in the fate of Disney's Brother Bear. Here's where I become even more depressed -- for Brother Bear represents what is typically wrong with Disney's usual approach to these movies. To put it frankly, it's generic. The movie follows the tried-and-true formula (non-conformist individual embarks on an adventure that teaches him/her the value of love, sacrifice, selflessness, etc.), but the variants on the formula aren't fresh enough to save the film from mediocrity.
What's worse concerns how borrowed the whole thing feels. We've got Phil Collins music from Tarzan. We have spiritual elements of nature from Pocahontas. We get animal danger and humor a la The Lion King. And, in what could be the oddest turn of all, Brother Bear reminds us of Ice Age -- a non-Disney 3-D animated movie. It's set in a similar era, when wooly mammoths still roamed; it takes place during a cold season in a cold (presumably Arctic) land; it follows a journey pairing a loner with a too-friendly jabberjaw. At one point, the main characters even join in a herd migration, whereupon multiple animal species come along for the ride. They also get lost in an ice cavern, and then contemplate man-made paintings where the message is, once again, that human hunters are scary.
These elements all point to Brother Bear's main weakness: a stunning lack of originality. And that's what's killing the 2-D animated movies. After all, one need only look at a counterexample to see how wrongheaded it would be to blame the failure of these films on the format's inability to keep one's attention. Disney's last successful traditional animated movie was Lilo & Stitch (2002). It followed the outcast outline but created an inventive space for its characters to play in, combining aliens, Hawaii, Elvis, and watercolors with a zany sense of humor and a playful energy. The movie took some chances in presenting a couple of protagonists who were more flawed than usual. It felt risky. Brother Bear, however, feels safe, coloring inside its lines and always yielding the right of way. The ground it treads is well-worn, and there are less items of interest as a result.
Brother Bear isn't a rotten apple -- it's a work of competence, but it lacks life. It's predictable because you've seen it many times before, from many different sources. Disney has always needed to shake up its storytelling formula, and their last movie, Treasure Planet, should have been a loud and bright indication that the formula needs an update. It does not mean the medium is faulty. If they take this formula with them to their 3-D animated projects, they will still see problems. In the meantime, we have Brother Bear, another blind instance of the formula. If this movie underperforms, I'll weep for the future of 2-D.
©Jeffrey Chen, Oct. 18, 2003