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Brother Bear (2003)
Directors: Aaron Blaise and Robert Walker

review by Amy Harlib

Two experienced animation supervisors, Aaron Blaise and Robert Walker, team up to make their co-directorial debut for the Disney Studios' latest animated feature and they go for bear (pun intended) in a charmer that proves that there's still life left in the Mouse House's formula. If rumours prove true that this is the last picture to use traditionally hand-drawn cel animation (with minimal de rigueur nowadays, CGI enhancement), that would be a tragic loss, for all diverse forms of the animator's art deserve to co-exist and thrive in harmony to tell great stories for the benefit of us all.

Brother Bear's tale, while containing themes and subject matter that calls to mind those of its studio predecessors The Lion King and Pocahantas, nevertheless possesses distinctness of its own, most refreshingly in its lack of annoyingly one-dimensional villains, and with its Native American protagonists all displaying satisfyingly believable shades of grey in their virtues and flaws, and in its positive portrayals of Shamanism. The film could have done without the rather intrusive six pop music style songs, blandly pleasant but unmemorable, written and performed by Phil Collins with Tina Turner to be heard on one and all six played over visual montages that did little to illumine the narrative.

This production's laudable qualities far outweigh the already mentioned biggest fault for Brother Bear possesses a compelling plot to go with the dazzling images on the screen. The story, set some 12,000 years ago at the end of the Ice Age in the Pacific Northwest, opens with a group of Palaeo-Inuit preparing to celebrate the rite-of-passage to manhood ceremony of the teenage Kenai (voiced by Joaquin Phoenix), youngest of three brothers. When Tenana (Joan Copeland), the wise, elder female leader (oh joy!) also moonlighting as the Shaman, bestows on Kenai his totem/spirit guide indicated by a carved bear ornament symbolising love, the disappointed youth yearns to have a wolf signifying courage like his middle sibling Denahi (Jason Raize), or an eagle standing for wisdom like that of Sitka (D.B. Sweeney), the eldest of the trio.

Ironically, when, soon after, Kenai leaves a basket of fish untended and a bear consumes its contents, the boy vengefully chases after the scrounger who fiercely turns on the pursuer. Coming to the rescue, Sitka, while saving Kenai, gets killed and his soul ascends to merge with the Aurora Borealis - the realm of the ancestral spirits. Kenai then succeeds in slaying the bear that caused Sitka's demise, an act of rashness; the latest in a stream of impulsive acts born of Kenai's lingering immaturity.

To give the protagonist some needed insights and the opportunity to learn empathy, the otherworldly spirits descend, manifesting in the form of glowing strands of light. They transform Kenai into a bear to make him understand the life and ways of the creature he desired to destroy. In his ursine existence, Kenai soon finds out that from the perspective of the hunted, spear and knife-wielding humans become monstrous! To his horror, Kenai, unrecognizable in his furry guise, finds himself forced to flee the attacks of his brother Denahi who in turn believes the bear he pursues has slain his youngest sibling.

The Shaman appears to Kenai, informing him that he'll find the answers he seeks and a chance to change back to human form when he reaches a sacred pinnacle where "the light touches the earth." Along the way to this goal, Kenai acquires a companion, a spunky, voluble orphaned bear-cub named Koda (Jeremy Suarez) who knows the way to the mountain. The pair soon grow fond of each other in a prickly sort of way initially, and then their relationship grows warmer while they travel and add to their party, a couple of goofy Canadian moose Rutt and Tuke, aptly voiced respectively by Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas. They hilariously reprise their beloved beer-soaked personas Bob and Doug McKenzie from SCTV and Strange Brew; exaggerated Canuck accents et al, and steal every scene! The journeyers also encounter a duo of amusingly obtuse rams (vocals by Paul Christie and Daniel Mastrogiorgio), near the sought-after peak along the way to a place where Koda had hoped to find his kin.

At this locale where many bears gather for an annual Salmon Run fish-gathering, Kenai gets to know their leader Tug (Michael Clarke Duncan) and learns the shocking truth about the fate of Koda's mother. When Kenai at last manages to climb to the top of his mountainous destination, the resolution - involving Koda, of course, Sitka's spirit and Denahi who finally catches up with his quarry - offers some interesting and satisfying surprises.

Brother Bear demonstrates the glories of the best traditional animation in its gorgeous depictions of pristine wilderness in a variety of different environs with flora and fauna limned in exquisite painterly detail. The story lives up to its lush background with its many laughs, thrills and worthy messages promoting understanding the interconnectedness of all living creatures; the value of brotherhood or what the indigenous people mean when they say, "all my relations"; and conveying that the true measure of one's maturity comes through love and caretaking.

Best of all, the Native American characters possess all the vagaries, good and bad, of human nature and are not just noble clichés or worse, barbaric savages. Their physiques; clothing; artefacts of daily life; and animistic beliefs get well portrayed; likewise the vivid interactions of the three protagonist brothers and the wonderful Shaman. Apart from the songs, the excellent evocative score creates the right atmosphere for the adventurous, humorous, heart-warming, visually stunning story.

A little too similar thematically to other recent animated features (Ice Age and Spirit: Stallion Of The Cimarron also spring to mind), to achieve classic status, Brother Bear still offers loads of fun and excitement without ever becoming too preachy. This makes it a standout, one of Disney's better offerings. Fine, family entertainment, just a notch shy of the originality and greatness of Lilo And Stitch, this film goes beyond being merely bearable and approaches quite delightful levels.
Brother Bear

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