Judge Bryan Pope says his brother is more akin to a pig than a bear.
See through another's eyes, feel through another's heart, and discover the meaning of brotherhood.
Last year, Walt Disney Studios released what has been rumored to be one of its final traditionally animated feature-length films. Brother Bear was a success, albeit a modest one by Disney's standards. Disney has now released this colorful family film on DVD in a spiffy two-disc special edition.
Facts of the Case
Three Innuit brothers live peacefully with their tribe in the untamed North American wilderness. When the oldest brother, Sitka, dies while protecting his younger brothers from an angry bear, the youngest brother, Kenai, seeks revenge. He tracks the bear to the top of a sacred mountain where "the lights touch the earth" and kills it, but not without consequence—he is magically transformed into a bear by the spirits. Kenai's other brother, Denahi, arrives at the mountaintop to find only the bear, which he assumes has killed Kenai. Before Denahi has a chance to kill Kenai, Kenai falls down the mountainside and is swept away by the river.
Tanana, the tribe's shaman, rescues Kenai and explains to him that Sitka's spirit has caused the transformation. If Kenai wishes to regain his human form, he must return to the top of the mountain and convince the spirits of his worth. With Denahi on his trail, Kenai sets off on the quest, forming unexpected alliances along the way.
Unless Pixar or Hayao Miyazaki is in some way connected, Disney's animated releases don't get much respect from film enthusiasts these days. Perhaps it's because of the studio's penchant for marketing every one of its homegrown products to the nth degree. Perhaps it's because all Disney films now seem to exist solely to be strip-mined for cheap straight-to-video sequels or lousy Disney Channel programming. Perhaps it's for any number of other reasons, and perhaps they're all valid indictments against Disney. However, this doesn't change my opinion that Disney is still capable of producing some of the world's most entertaining and moving animated films, Brother Bear being no exception.
Early North American Innuit customs and rituals give Brother Bear a texture lacking in some of Disney's recent 2D efforts (Treasure Planet and Atlantis: The Lost Empire, for example). The story draws from Innuit beliefs about transformation, the communion of man and nature, and animals as conduits of the spirits. I especially liked the way it incorporated the Innuit belief that the aurora borealis is the gateway to the spirit world. Whether this is an accurate depiction of Innuit beliefs I have no idea, but I had no trouble accepting it.
Like Disney's best efforts, Brother Bear explores themes that are pertinent to both kids and adults. Given the current political climate, the one that resonates most is that of treating those who are different than us with love and compassion, rather than with fear and hate. I realize countless other family films have proclaimed this call for brotherly love, but if one theme is worth repeating, folks, this is it.
Making all of this palatable is a cast of engaging characters. Brothers Kenai, Denahi, and Sitka (voiced by Joaquin Phoenix, Jason Raize, and D.B. Sweeney, respectively) ground the movie with their competitive, playful, and always loving relationship. Supporting them are the spirited shaman Tanana (Joan Copeland), who acts as a surrogate mother to the brothers; the abandoned bear cub Koda (Jeremy Suarez), who orients Kenai into the bear culture; and Rutt and Tuke (Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas), the two moose who provide most of the film's comic relief. With their unforced humor and breezy chemistry, Rutt and Tuke are clearly destined to be this film's breakout stars.
Visually speaking, Brother Bear is breathtaking. One moment, in particular, ranks right up there with the very best of Disney. When Kenai is lifted into the sky to be transformed into a bear, the heavens glow with the lights of the aurora borealis and the legions of animal spirits that live within it. Coupled with Phil Collins's "Transformation" music (the one bright spot in an otherwise mamby-pamby score), the moment is beautiful and powerful. Brother Bear is full of such moments. It has warmth and heart, the hallmark of Disney's best films, and it's worthy of a slot in any film lover's collection.
Brother Bear gets the royal treatment in the video department. Disc One displays the film in the "family-friendly" 1.66:1 aspect ratio. Why Disney still considers this to be the preferred choice of families is beyond me, but I'll stick with the presentation on Disc Two, thank you very much. Here, you'll find Brother Bear in its original aspect ratio. Make that ratios. The film starts off in 1.85:1 and switches to 2.35:1 as soon as Kenai transforms into a bear. This is intended to signify the different perspective bears have of the world. While I don't think this gave the story more impact, it's an interesting touch, and one that this disc handles well. Both versions of the film are anamorphic.
Transfers for both versions are jaw-dropping in their beauty. The artists created a sweeping and colorful wilderness that is a joy to look at, and this DVD does it justice. From the blues of the water and sky to the oranges and reds of the leaves and the deep greens of the grass, everything looks sharp and solid, especially after Kenai is transformed into a bear. Before his transformation, the colors have a deliberately muddy tone. Afterward, though, that veil is lifted to reveal a world alive with radiant color. In this judge's opinion, the North American wilderness has never looked more stunning than it does here.
Audio is as fantastic as the video, with DTS 5.1 Digital Surround available in English and Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround available in English, French, and Spanish. I selected the DTS 5.1 Digital, and it was impressive. In addition to Phil Collins's percussion-heavy score, the soundtrack includes a vast array of natural effects, such as rushing water, crackling ice, blowing leaves, snapping twigs, and chirping insects. Many of these sounds are channeled to the rear speakers to good effect. Music, dialogue, and effects are well balanced throughout, but a special nod goes to the whammo effect the surround sound provides during the transformation scene. Here, especially, the sound is incredibly rich and full.
Brother Bear may be just a minor jewel in Disney's crown, but that hasn't kept the Mouse House from putting together a smorgasbord of supplements.
• Feature-length commentary with Rutt and Tuke: Thanks to Moranis and Thomas, who are in full Bob-and-Doug-McKenzie mode as the moose duo, this is easily the most entertaining feature in the entire package. Rutt and Tuke discuss their different acting styles (one is method), the joys of hockey and raw salmon, and their theory that the sudden appearance of a chipmunk always foreshadows certain doom. You can play the commentary with visuals (à la Mystery Science Theater 3000) or without. And if there's very little substance to be found here, who cares? It's a hoot, eh?
• Koda's Outtakes: Less than three minutes of animated "bloopers" hosted by Koda. Amusing enough, but not on par with what Pixar did for its films.
• Bear Legends: Three stories comprise this featurette ("How Bears Came to Be," "The Hunting of the Great Bear," and "The Boy Who Lived With Bears"), but they are told using cave drawings rather than traditional Disney animation. At only three minutes, this program is slight but fun.
• Making Noise: The Art of Foley: Suarez hosts this sound-effects featurette, which runs a little over three minutes. Mildly interesting but too brief, this could have just as easily been incorporated into the documentary on Disc Two.
• Art Review: This ten-minute featurette covers character and scene designs, and it could also have been included in the documentary on disc two.
• Two games: "Bone Puzzle" is exactly what it sounds like. Using your remote control, you try to assemble the skeletons of animal feet using the bones provided. Once you assemble a foot, the game gives you factoids about that animal. (Rabbits have three sets of eyelids. Who knew?) This game is tedious to navigate, and many of the bones look an awful lot alike, but at least there's some educational value to be found. Not so with "Find Your Totem," in which you answer a series of questions to help the spirits determine your totem (mine was a wolf). Rather lengthy for such little payoff, but kids might enjoy doing it once or twice.
• "Look Through My Eyes" music video: Clips of Phil Collins singing this unexceptional song are interspersed with scenes from the movie.
• "On My Way" sing-along
• Paths of Discovery: The Making of Brother Bear: This 45-minute documentary provides a fairly comprehensive look at how Brother Bear was made. It covers the story's origin, characterizations, voices, artwork, and the score. Even with the usual back patting, this is an informative program.
• Deleted scenes: The eleven minutes of footage shown here (some using rough sketch animation) add little to the story. However, "Where's Koda" includes some amusing exchanges between Rutt and Tuke, and "Muri the Squirrel" introduces a character that didn't make it into the final cut.
• "Fishing Song": This never-before-heard Phil Collins song was cut from the salmon run scene. Here, it is animated using rough sketches. Mediocre song, but nice to have as an extra.
• "Transformation" song: Now this was a nifty little feature. During the scene where Kenai is transformed into a bear, Phil Collins's "Transformation" is sung in Innuit. While the song is lovely, it means pretty much nothing to those of us who don't speak Innuit. In this featurette, the English translation is provided as we watch the scene. But the real treat is watching clips of the Bulgarian Women's Choir recording the song for the film's soundtrack.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Talking animals have always been a part of the Disney universe, so I had no trouble accepting bears, moose, and goats conversing with one another. Anachronisms, on the other hand, are a different matter, and Brother Bear is full of them. For example, the film includes references to yoga and a kayaking sequence that plays like an extreme sport. Also, I'm not an anthropologist, but I'm willing to bet that the expressions "loverboy" and "knock it off" were not part of the early Innuit vernacular. For me, these moments were distracting and demonstrated a lack of faith in an otherwise strong story and powerful themes.
I can't help but wonder how much more effective Brother Bear might have been if Disney had taken an authentic approach with its human and nonhuman characters. Consider Ice Age. While its animal characters were as Disneyfied as anything in Brother Bear, it never winked at its audience when it came to its human characters. The people of Ice Age had simpler dialogue and rougher features than those in Brother Bear, and I think that was a wise approach.
Although modern flourishes rob Brother Bear of some of its charm and power, this is a delightful, spectacularly animated piece of storytelling that your family will enjoy. Disney has provided a beautiful transfer and a number of fine extras.
Not guilty, but Disney is urged to have more faith in its stories—and its audience—in the future.
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