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Tuesday, November 25, 2003

The best word to describe Brother Bear is "schizophrenic". Jumping from sincere tributes to Native American culture and legends to the cartoony talking animals of animation history, it often it feels like several movies overlapping or shape-shifting like the main character's story arc. The most surprising thing about this execution: somehow it seems to work, and even makes sense. So even though I went in expecting the worst, I couldn’t help but be impressed. In fact, I was on the edge of my seat, and equate the movie to a high wire act. Every second, I was waiting for the movie to fall, and every second it didn’t was a sigh of relief. For every anticipated sappy Phil Collins song…there was a clever character bit or story twist to bring it back to balance.
The movie opens in typical Disney fashion, welcoming us with majestic landscapes filled with the now standard (and always distracting) computer generated effects. The setting seems to be somewhere near the Canadian border, not that specifics really matter in films. Because even though it’s set in a distant time of Wooly Mammoths, the directors make sure the audience can relate to would-be foreign culture by making sure its inhabitants’ lifestyles parallel that of present-day surfer dudes. The slang is thankfully kept to a minimum, but it’s hard not to laugh at the unnecessary Extreme Sports-inspired crane shots of three Indian brothers canoeing to THE EDGE. I guess it worked for Tarzan…and sorta Treasure Planet…so why not try it again? Luckily, this kind of pandering to youth culture is gotten out of the movie’s system long before act two, and the film starts to get a bit more interesting. You get to know the three brothers and how they react to their traditional coming-of-age ritual where they are assigned an animal Totem that is meant to reflect their destiny. At this point, I started reflecting on how cool it would be for Disney to do a straightforward action movie, along the lines they were establishing here. But having seen all the obnoxious advertising, I knew the talking Moose were coming, so rather than let myself get too comfortable, I started bracing myself for the fall.
Without giving away too many spoilers, I will point out that Brother Bear works off of what I refer to as the "Wizard of Oz Format." The realistic part of the film starts off with lots of gray tones reflecting the harsh human world—and then suddenly switches to super Technicolor once the fantasy begins. Our protagonist, Kenai, transforms into a bear, and both literally and metaphorically, he now sees everything through animal eyes. He’s more attuned to nature and the animators get to reflect that in their technique. It’s taken a step further by Animals—which up to this point were handled with dark cold eyes and realistic movement—who have become full-fledged cartoon stars capable of wacky hi-jinks in the classic Disney (and in some cases Warner Bros.) sense. If I were still a teenager who grew up longing for more movies like Fire and Ice and Akira, this dramatic switch would have driven me crazy. And frankly, in the wrong hands this would have been where the movie fell right off the wire. But somehow it manages to hold on and even make you care. It becomes clear that everything up to this point was just a set up for the real movie. An unapologetic cartoon movie. And even though it is completely different than what we were just watching, it’s a joy in its own right. It's funny in the way that listening to a little kid boast about how they can kick your butt is funny. It’s exciting like watching an animal escape a predator is exciting. It's compelling in the way that misguided revenge and family tragedy often is. But more than anything, Brother Bear will tug on your heartstrings because you can’t help but love that cute-as-anything bear cub, Koda. A lot of the credit obviously goes to Jeremy Suarez for doing a wonderfully sincere voice performance.
But unlike most other recent animated films, the real star of this film is the amazing acting job of the animators and not some Hollywood personality. Brother Bear truly comes to life through the drawings that make up such a wonderfully animated character like Koda. You can see the love and passion in each movement, both subtle and exaggerated. It's work like this that reminds you why Disney animators still have the ability to make classic characters, while nobody takes anything away from a film like Shrek except the voice acting of the celebrities attached (as proven by that film's advertising). Like Glen Keane's work on Tarzan...you can see the craftsmanship of each line and the fluidity of movement in a way that doesn’t try to be overly realistic, but achieves something more interesting: a balance between naturalism and idealism. For my money, I'd rather pay to see that kind of art any day. Even if I have to suffer though some tacked-on Phil Collins songs and cultural eye-winking along the way.

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