01 December 2012

Disney Daze: Week 44: Brother Bear

In 2012, this intrepid reporter plans to watch, in chronological order, all of Walt Disney Studios' 52 theatrically-released animated features, one per week.

After three features with decidedly futuristic sci-fi tones, Disney chose to return to a more traditional narrative with Brother Bear, focussing on the bonds of family in an idealized natural setting. It would also give them the opportunity to incorporate talking animals, something we have not seen since the petulant Kuzco unwittingly turned into a llama three years prior in The Emperor's New Groove. In fact, the basic plot elements of Brother Bear are almost identical to that previous feature, although the tone is decidedly less snarky and more majestic.

Brother Bear takes place in the upper reaches of North America shortly after the Ice Age. The film begins with the story of three Inuit brothers; the wise elder Sitka, the teasing middle child Denahi, and the immature slacker Kenai. It is the day of Kenai's ceremonial graduation to manhood and he is tasked with securing some celebratory salmon high in a tree so that bears cannot get to it. He does a slapdash job and following the ceremony, the family discovers the fish are gone. Attempting to make right, Kenai tracks the thieving bear as his brothers follow but he and Denahi become endangered on a glacier and Sitka gallantly sacrifices himself to save them. Kenai blames the bear for Sitka's death and against Denahi's objections, vows vengeance.  Atop the tribe's mystical mountain, Kenai does manage to kill the bear, but the spirit of Sitka intervenes and turns his brother into a grizzly to teach him a lesson in humility and responsibility.

The film makes a number of odd visual choices. The strangest being the decision to change the film's aspect ratio after Kenai transforms from a human to a bear. The first third of the picture is framed in a squarish 1.66:1, before switching to a widescreen scope frame of 2.35:1 for the last hour. The color palette of the film also changes from a more washed out grey look in the prologue to a vibrant, popping colorful world when seen from the bear's perspective. This changing of format has been done before in a number of pictures, most effectively in the great science-fiction homage Galaxy Quest, but its use in Brother Bear is not handled particularly well. For one, the change does not occur instantly with Kenai's transformation, it happens the next morning when he awakens. The screen cuts to black and then suddenly everything is widescreen but there is no dramatic orienting shot of say, a mountain vista, just a point-of-view shot of a bear looking up at some leaves. If one wasn't paying close attention, this fluorish could be rather easily missed.

Some more subtle, but better integrated, visual tricks are interspersed throughout the film. During the tribe's funeral for Sitka, the screen freezes and blacks out with evocative mystical imagery. Also early on in the picture we do get a grand shot of the forest scenery and the animators include a lens flare as if their handpainted sun was affecting the camera's perception. This is an anachronistic--but unconsciously effective--means of establishing the grandeur of the surroundings, and is a testament to how cinematic shorthand has permeated our understanding of the world. Two movies made after Brother Bear, the digital science fiction wonders WALL*E and Star Trek, do similar flaring techniques.

As Kenai comes to terms with his newfound fur and claws, his brother Denahi is tracking him because he mistakenly believes Kenai is the bear that killed both of his brothers. Kenai meanwhile befriends an energetic little cub named Koda and the two head off in search of the salmon stream, which conveniently rests adjacent to the mountain where Kenai can change back into a man. Along their journey, the duo meet all manner of wild creatures including mammoths, goats, and the film's best supporting characters, a pair of moose named Rutt and Tuke, voiced by Dave Thomas and Rick Moranis as an overt homage to their immortal creations, the brothers Bob and Doug Mackenzie of Strange Brew fame. The two have a fantastic interplay between each other, honed from years of collaboration, and even though they're straightjacked by the family friendly film, they do manage one gloriously subtle nudge to their characters' origins by looking for, "a pile of delicious barley and amberweed on a cool bed of malted hops, eh." The film would be Moranis's last theatrical role before his retirement.

Tarzan songwriter and famed casual dresser Phil Collins returns to the composer's chair for Brother Bear. His presence is much more predominant here, with a series of overblown ballads that the filmmakers use for narrative shorthand in nearly a half dozen montages throughout the film. Even during the picture's most supposedly emotional moment, when Kenai informs Koda that his mother is dead, the soundtrack is highjacked by Collins's belting and we are only allowed to hear snippets of the two bears' dialogue. To its ultimate disservice, histrionics substitute for emotion time and again in Brother Bear.  

However, this "story of a boy who became a man by becoming a bear" ends with a tenderly composed reunion of both families. While the beats that got us there were well worn and wholly unsurprising, there is still a satisfying emotional closure by the climactic homecoming. Kenai embracing his Inuit brothers while Koda reaches out for the spectral presence of his dead mother does a much better job of illustrating the circle of life than another bombastic song. There is little to distinguish Brother Bear's narrative from any number of stories before it (as well as a few that came after, including Pixar's recent Brave) but like the traditions passed down through the Inuit tribes, there can be comfort in that familiar journey.

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