"Brother Bear" is, we're told by the end, "the story of a boy who became a man by becoming a bear," though it's more the story of a boy who became a bear by becoming a bear. Likewise, this Disney animated feature wants to become a classic by becoming "The Lion King" of the prehistoric Pacific Northwest, but all it really becomes is a movie that makes you think it's trying to be "The Lion King" of the prehistoric Pacific Northwest. The boy here is Kenai (voiced by Joaquin Phoenix), a coming-of-age tribesman living among mammoths and other thick-coated animals about 10,000 years ago. He, like his two older brothers, is given a totem from a tribal elder to symbolize his guiding spirit, but while they've received an eagle representing "guidance" and a wolf representing "wisdom," he's disappointed to get a bear representing "love."
One of the advantages of making animated features is that the target audience tends to be young enough not to notice the recycled elements. It was adults, not kids, who initially complained that "The Lion King" was "Bambi" in the jungle. Once "Brother Bear" gets away from the typically bland humans of the opening act, kids should respond to this agreeable enough animal story featuring some cute bears, particularly a perky, motherless cub named Koda (Jeremy Suarez) - it just wouldn't be a Disney movie without a dead animal parent, now would it? (And if you can guess what happened to Koda's mommy, that means you're at least 7.)
But there's something vanilla about the whole enterprise, from the one-size-fits-all spiritualism to Phil Collins' generic world-music songs that punctuate the narrative a la his Oscar-winning (!) work in "Tarzan." "Brother Bear" boasts the international flavor of a food court.
Most of the laughs are provided by the requisite comic-relief animals: Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas voicing Rutt and Tuke, the Bob and Doug McKenzie of moose. Their shtick is more for the parents, though. Kids may be amused by how goofy this pair is, but they're not likely to get Canadian jokes sprung from "SCTV" sketches of 20 years ago, eh?
The journey is diverting in a Saturday-morning kind of way, but it doesn't compare to, say, "Finding Nemo," where the stakes are higher, the laughs harder, the emotions deeper. Here we have a marginally appealing boy who's been turned into a bear, and we don't care much if he ever changes back. The movie can't ultimately come up with a satisfactory way to balance his obligations to his tribe and his cub friend; it treats being a bear and being a human as equal pursuits.
The movie, a product of Disney's Florida Animation Studio (following "Mulan" and "Lilo & Stitch"), isn't visually groundbreaking, either. There are some pleasing images of the Northern Lights, airborne spirits and an ice mountain, but for the most part the visuals feel more programmed than the computer-generated images of "Finding Nemo"; creativity is not a byproduct of technology.
The most unusual visual aspect may strike some viewers as a projectionist's glitch: The movie begins in a standard 1.85:1 ratio before widening to 2.35:1 Cinemascope framing when Kenai becomes a bear. Now that you know this, you won't have to tell the theater manager that the curtains are open too wide at the beginning.
Like the mammoths on screen, "Brother Bear" is said to be part of a dying breed: features made with hand-drawn animation. An all-out surrender to computers would be a shame - and the images here are preferable to the awkward hand-drawn/computer hybrid of "Sinbad" - but the makers of movies like "Brother Bear" need to remember that seeming old and being timeless aren't the same thing.
Directed by Aaron Blaise, Robert Walker; written by Tab Murphy, Lorne Cameron, David Hoselton, Steve Bencich, Ron J. Friedman; edited by Tim Mertens; songs by Phil Collins; produced by Chuck Williams. A Walt Disney Pictures release; opens Saturday, Nov. 1. Running time: 1:25. MPAA rating: G.
Kenai - Joaquin Phoenix
Koda - Jeremy Suarez
Denahi - Jason Raize
Rutt - Rick Moranis
Tuke - Dave Thomas
Tanana - Joan Copeland