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Brother Bear (2003)/Brother Bear 2 (2006)

Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment
Blu-ray Disc Released: 3/12/2013

All Ratings out of

Brother Bear

Brother Bear 2
Movie: 1/2

Review by Mike Long, Posted on 3/10/2013

There have many reports recently implying that the death knell has sounded for traditional, hand-drawn 2-D animation. The most telling indicator came when Disney closed its animation studio in Orlando, Florida and laid-off much of the staff. For me, I certainly enjoy CG animation, but I also still like 2-D films. As with any medium, the movie must have a good story. Disney's Lilo & Stitch did, and thus was an enjoyable film. Disney's next offering, Brother Bear, did not, and it makes one wonder if Disney didn't help to kill the medium themselves.

Brother Bear focuses on a group of Native Americans, who presumably live in Canada. Specifically, the film tells the story of three brothers; Sitka (voiced by D.B. Sweeney), Denahi (voiced by Jason Raize), and Kenai (voiced by Joaquin Phoenix). When males in their tribe reach a certain age, they are bestowed with an animal totem -- a spiritual guide who will help shape their lives. The totem chosen for Kenai is the bear of love, a decision which disappoints him greatly. Meanwhile, a real bear has taken a large amount of fish from the village, so the three brothers go after it, and the expedition ends in tragedy. When Kenai attempts to kill the bear in order to get revenge, the great spirits transform him into a bear himself. Now in bear form, Kenai must survive in the wild, and escape the wrath of Denahi, while attempting to reach the place where the lights touch the Earth. On his journey, Kenai meets a young bear cub named Koda (voiced by Jeremy Suarez), and this mismatched pair head for the salmon run, an annual gathering for bears.

I really hate to admit this, especially considering that Brother Bear is ostensibly a children's film, but I didn't understand this movie. Clearly the film is attempting to teach the importance of tolerance and in the story Kenai must learn the value of brotherhood. But, the story is so unfocused and wavering that these points are only hinted at, and never clearly driven home. And the confusing ending only makes matters worse. Maybe I was reading too much into the story, or perhaps not enough, but Brother Bear appears to be tackling serious issues, but comes across as quite hollow. This could be due in part to the fact that none of the characters are very engaging. The three brothers are interchangeable, and once Kenai makes his transformation, he goes from being a bland human to being a bland bear. Koda offers some comic relief, but the character reminded me too much of the young Simba from The Lion King. Speaking of things from other Disney films, the Phil Collins composed songs here sound just like his songs from Tarzan.

The movies greatest flaw is that its missing the Disney requisite cute animal sidekick character, many of whom have carried recent Disney films. Instead, we get Rick Mornis and Dave Thomas doing their McKenzie Brothers shtick as two moose named Rutt and Tuke. Sure, they have some funny moments, but they aren't in the movie very much. However, Brother Bear isn't all bad. There are some interesting scenes, especially one involving a geyser field (although, its very reminiscent of the Elephant graveyard scene from The Lion King) and once Kenai makes his transformation, the animation style changes somewhat, revealing some truly gorgeous landscapes and nice character design. But, Brother Bear cant escape the fact that its simply mediocre and disappointing. Take The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast, then remove all of the drama, and you've got Brother Bear.

Brother Bear comes to DVD courtesy of Disney DVD. Now, stick with me here, as the technical specs for this release are very confusing. When shown in theaters, Brother Bear opened with an aspect ratio of 1.66:1, but when Kenai turns into a bear, the screen changes to 2.35:1. For this transfer, Chapters 1-7 are letterboxed at 1.33:1...inside of a 2.35:1 frame. This makes no sense whatsoever. As I remember, this was done correctly on the DVD release, so what happened here? For the record, this transfer is an AVC 1080p HD transfer which runs at an average of 28 Mbps. The image is very sharp and clear, showing no grain and no defects from the source material. The colors look fantastic and the image is never overly dark or bright. The multi-plane animation looks very good and lends the image a nice amount of depth. The Disc carries a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track which runs at 48 kHz and an average of 5.0 Mbps. The track provides clear dialogue and sound effects. The stereo effects are very good, especially those which highlight the various sounds of the forest. These same scenes show off the surround sound channels as well. The finale provides nice subwoofer effects.

The Brother Bear Blu-ray Disc contains many extras. We get an AUDIO COMMENTARY from Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas, who are performing in character as Rutt and Tuke. This is by far the best extra and is actually better than the movie itself, as these two veteran comedians crack joke after joke, most of which will escape younger viewers, but will have adults in stitches. "Koda's Outtakes" (3 minutes) are faux bloopers, like those made popular by the Pixar films, and some are quite funny. There is a MUSIC VIDEO (4 minutes) for the Phil Collins song "Look Through My Eyes", and there is a sing-along for the song "On My Way". "Bear Legends: Native American Tales" (3 minutes) contains three stories, "How Bears Came to Be", "The Hunting of the Great Bear', and "The Boy Who Lived with the Bears', all of which are told with cave paintings. With 'Making Noise: The Art of Foley' (3 minutes), Jeremy Suarez visits a Foley stage to see how sound effects are made. Animator Robh Ruppel and Byron Howard examine the various animation styles used in the film and character design in "Art Review' (10 minutes). "Paths of Discovery: The Making of Brother Bear" (45 minutes), gives a very in-depth look at the animation process, the voice actors, and the music for the film. There are 3 DELETED SCENES, all of which are shown with rough animation or storyboards. Finally, there are two never-before-heard songs, "Fishing Song" and "Transformation", which contain lyrics which are different from those in the final film.

Brother Bear 2 is, on a story level, about as unimaginative and unimpressive as every other Disney Direct-To-Video 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 less impressive than their theatrical relatives. 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.

Brother Bear 2 gets all furry on Blu-ray Disc courtesy of Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment. The movie has been letterboxed at 1.78:1 and the Disc contains an AVC 1080p HD transfer which runs at an average of 28 Mbps. The image is very sharp and clear, showing no grain and no defects from the source materials. The colors look very good, although they aren't as vibrant as those seen in Brother Bear. The picture shows a nice amount of detail and the depth is good. For a DTV movie, this has a nice crispness to it. The Disc carries a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track which runs at 48 kHz and an average of 4.8 Mbps. The track provides clear dialogue and sound effects. The track is good, but it lacks a certain amount of "oomph". The stereo and surround effects are nicely done, and show good separation. The bear roars do a good job of bringing the subwoofer into the game.

The lone extra on the Brother Bear 2 Blu-ray Disc is "Behind the Music of Brother Bear 2", 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.

Review by Mike Long. Copyright 2013.