Perhaps feeling the need to atone for his portrayal of a rabidly carnivorous military man in Buffalo Soldiers, PETA spokesman Joaquin Phoenix can now be experienced onscreen in Brother Bear as an animated Inuit hunter transformed into a bear, who comes to the realization that hunting animals makes them sad. The setting is prehistoric Alaska, where woolly mammoths still walk the earth, but every single other creature is contemporary and familiar; any more primeval mammals -- such as, perhaps, sabertooths or giant sloths -- and there might be an unfortunate resemblance to a certain recent non-Disney cartoon (forget the name, but I think it had something to do with an age of ice).
Anyhow, the Inuit people are around, and they all speak like contemporary Caucasians, possibly because, with one notable exception, they are -- every single Inuit actor working today must have been too busy crafting Atanarjuat (The Fast Runner) to participate. Their chants, oddly enough, are performed by the Bulgarian Women's Choir, in the Inuit language. Oh, and Tina Turner kicks things off with a number called "Great Spirits," getting us into the feel of Native America by belting out a tune written by . . . Phil Collins? Jeez. At least Bryan Adams, whose songs (dis)graced Dreamworks' Native American-themed 'toon Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, was from the right continent. True, there are some misbegotten souls who somehow think that Phil Collins can still craft a song, but even his fans would probably acknowledge that none of the six numbers he's penned for Brother Bear are nearly as memorable as Tarzan's "You'll Be in My Heart." It's probably too much of a stretch to imagine Disney hiring Robbie Robertson or Willie Nelson, both of whom would be more appropriate. But Collins? Was Elton John too risqué? It's not like Disney desperately needs to lure the bland housewife demographic -- the kids'll drag 'em in, no matter whose tunes are involved.
Those kids might be quite fidgety during the film's first half, in which moody Kenai (Phoenix) gets hassled by older brother Denahi (Jason Raize) and eldest brother Sitka (D. B. Sweeney). Kenai's about to become a man and receive the totem that will guide him through life (uptight religious types who see paganism everywhere should cover their eyes and ears). Hoping his totem will be something, y'know, manly, Kenai is horrified to be given the Bear of Love, which is most definitely not to be confused with a fetish for fat, hairy guys. Since Kenai evinces no apparent interest in women, the whole "love" thing makes him feel emasculated and not a little pissed off at bears in general, so he goes to hunt one. Things go awry and tragedy occurs, making Kenai even moodier than he was before and even more determined to kill a bear. This time he has a bit more success, but the next day he wakes up to find that the movie is now in Cinemascope and he has become a big-eyed bear, courtesy of those pesky, generic "Great Spirits."
Nothing is too obvious for Disney, so of course it's no surprise to learn that in order to get back to normal, Kenai will have lessons to take in about both bears and love. Much of his knowledge will come from a stray cub named Koda (child-star Jeremy Suarez), who, though ebullient and a wisecracker, has his own deep-seated issues, which link him to Kenai in an unexpected way.
Still, it's much easier to have fun with cartoon bears than with humorless Inuit warriors, so at this point the film takes off. Aiding in the process considerably are a pair of moose voiced by the McKenzie Brothers, Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas. Since you'll probably never see that long-in-development Strange Brew sequel, this makes for a decent consolation prize, as their wacky quadruped avatars get ample screen time. The sole beer joke will sail over the youngsters' heads, but the duo's strongly accented displays of cluelessness transcend age in their appeal. A nitpicker might quibble that gags about yoga aren't exactly period-accurate, but what the hell, humans don't transform into bears in real life either.
In addition to Moranis and Thomas, mention must also be made of Michael Clarke Duncan and Estelle Harris, whose voices inhabit bear bodies that more than anything resemble the goofy animatronics from that other recent ursine adventure of Disney's, The Country Bears. Similarly, Paul Christie and Daniel Mastrogiorgio steal several scenes as a pair of rather obtuse mountain goats. By the time the movie gets back around to the restless native people, our lengthy diversion into humor has made us care, and the serious stuff starts working, even surprising us (well, this writer anyway).
The real question: Will your kids love it? Chances are, they'll love some of it, especially the second half. Disney's apparent notion that five screenwriters are better than one comes apart here -- fewer writers might have made a better transition between the tedious beginning and the lively bear scenes. Most likely, you and the children will forget the songs and probably won't want to re-watch the film as many times as the more entertaining Lilo & Stitch. Brother Bear is no timeless classic in the making, but what else are you gonna show the young 'uns -- Rugrats Go Wild? Please. Be sure to stick around all the way till the end of the credits -- like Pixar, the Mouse House has learned the value of fake outtakes.
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