I’ll admit, with the recent triumphant rise of such CGI animated wonders as Finding Nemo, and the recent hard tumbles of more traditional animated fare such as Treasure Planet, I was beginning to wonder if Disney’s venerable hand-drawn animation unit was on its way toward extinction.
That was before Brother Bear. This latest joy from Disney puts the class back in classic animation.
An emotionally rewarding tale about the unique bond between man and nature, Brother Bear defies the Disney template by forgoing the traditional villain/hero-driven narrative. Instead we get a rich, deeply felt story about self-actualization and love, as well as about learning to respect nature on its own terms. It’s the new Bambi.
The mythically-driven story is set in the Pacific Northwest 10,000 years ago, just as the Ice Age is winding down. Three brothers — the elder, patient Sitka (D.B. Sweeney), the tempestuous Denahi (Jason Raize) and the rambunctious Kenai (Joaquin Phoenix) — undergo a life-transforming adventure when a series of cataclysmic events cause them to confront a bear and an unexpected tragedy. When Sitka is killed in a freak accident involving a bear, hotheaded Kenai goes off to hunt the beast, only to be transformed by “the spirit lights ” into a bear himself. Denahi, grief-stricken and enraged, believes his youngest brother to be killed by the bear and pursues it with murderous intent.
Kenai the bear must not only escape his brother, but make a journey to the place “where the lights touch the earth, ” where he hopes to change back into a man. His companion is a pesky, playful and exceedingly chatty cub named Koda (Jeremy Suarez), who has lost his mother on the way to the annual Salmon run. The friendship begins reluctantly and takes on great importance for Kenai, who in effect becomes the brother Koda always wanted.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to guess the movie’s emotional trigger points. Still, the movie’s perfectly paced direction by Aaron Blaise and Robert Walker and exceptional screenplay carry you along effortlessly — it all feels surprising. And by the climax, it’s pretty hard to keep the floodgates closed.
The animation is extraordinary — with some of the most ravishing and lavish background work Disney has done in years. After Kenai’s transformation, the forest canvas is alight with bright, dazzling colors, replete with wildflowers, soaring pines and vast moutainscapes. It’s as striking and awe-inspiring as any nature painting hanging in any gallery. The characters have that playful Disney touch — and the animators expertly blur the lines of realism with the customary anthropomorphizing of the animal characters.
The vocal work is excellent on all counts, but particular praise must be paid to Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas who parry off one another with comic precision in the roles of Rutt and Tuke, a pair of slightly dense Canadian moose. The scene in which Rutt and Tuke, riding on the back of a Woolly Mammoth, play a game of “I Spy ” is one of the drollest moments ever to find its way into a Disney feature.
Brother Bear strives to be a Lion King for a new generation. But it’s doubtful that children will take to the film in the same way as they took to that instantaneous classic. Part of the problem is that there’s no clear-cut good and evil on which to latch. And while the implication is that man is the monster for hunting animals, the filmmakers conveniently forget the fact that there was no other means of obtaining food and clothing.
Still, Brother Bear is a joy to behold — a family film that dazzles the eye and satisfies our artistic desires, all the while filling our hearts to the point of overflow.