"Brother Bear," the new Disney animated film, is more than set in the distant past when woolly mammoths roamed the Earth, it's largely made in a traditional technique that, skeptics say, may soon be as extinct as that ancient beast.
That would be hand-drawn, two-dimensional animation, a labor-intensive method that has fallen from favor not only because of cost but because computer-generated imagery used by Pixar and others in everything from "Shrek" to "Finding Nemo" have dominated the marketplace. "Brother Bear" may not end up being the last of its breed, but it turns out to be a paradigmatic venture, illustrating both the virtues of hand-drawn films and why they have become an endangered species.
The best thing about "Brother Bear" (directed by Aaron Blaise and Robert Walker) is the richness and fluidity of its visuals, a painterly look that was inspired in part by the classic 19th century canvases of Albert Bierstadt. Set in an Edenic Pacific Northwest some 10,000 years in the past, "Brother Bear's" world of lush waterfalls and verdant forests is one we'd like to vacation in forever.
But this irreplaceable technique has, through no fault of its own, become joined at the hip to a sensibility so conventional and overly familiar it practically has moss growing on it. Not even enough credited writers to take on the Lakers (Tab Murphy and Lorne Cameron & David Hoselton and Steve Bencich & Ron J. Friedman) can give this film the interest it needs.
Don't misunderstand. There is definitely a place both in our hearts and on our screens for the kind of warmhearted G-rated film "Brother Bear" represents. Not every animated film has to be as hip as "Shrek," and when it's at its best, "Brother Bear" has an appeal that can't be denied. Too often, however, this film's lack of a fresh dramatic approach and not its technique makes it difficult to embrace as much as we'd like to.
Without that kind of a spark, all the trappings of hipness that Disney puts into this tale of a young Native American man who sees life from the other side when he's turned into a bear don't matter as much. True, there are songs by Phil Collins sung by everyone from Tina Turner to the Bulgarian Women's Chorus and the Blind Boys of Alabama. There are jokes about yoga for hip suburban parents, and a bright comic turn by SCTV's McKenzie brothers, Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas, playing a pair of slacker moose with strong Canadian accents. But none of this touches the core of the story, and the core is where rejuvenation is needed.
"Brother Bear" starts with a tribal ancient, speaking (refreshingly, actually) in the Inuit language, introducing "a story from long ago, when man and nature lived side by side." A story, as it turns out, about his brother, "a boy who desperately wanted to be a man."
That would be Kenai (Joaquin Phoenix), always tussling with older brothers Sitka (D.B. Sweeney) and Denahi (Jason Raize). Soon it will be the time for his manhood ceremony, when the shaman Tanana (Joan Copeland) will present him with the animal totem that is fated to guide his life. Much to Kenai's macho disgust, that animal is a bear, the totem of love. Kenai doesn't believe love has anything to do with being a man and he thinks bears are not too bright. Clearly, this is a young person with a lot to learn.
And learn he does when a combination of natural and supernatural events (including some deaths) result in the transformation of this adolescent into a healthy bear. Though intrigued by his ability to understand what animals are saying, Kenai is horrified at this turn of events and wants to get to your standard sacred mountain for a retransformation as soon as possible. Only he doesn't know where it is.
Enter Koda (Jeremy Suarez), a young cub who's been separated from his mother and wants to trade his knowledge of the mountain's whereabouts for some companionship. It's a hard bargain for Kenai to accept, and for us as well, for not only has the reluctant companions ploy become one of the most overused in animation, but Koda is so self-consciously cute he makes your teeth hurt.
"Brother Bear" does have a satisfying ending and it's nice to see a G-rated film without bathroom humor, but there is too much formula and not enough reason to pay attention here. These G-rated films just have to try harder, not just for their own sakes, but for the sake of the wonders of the hand-drawn art. There's nothing uncommercial about this technique that a little of the dramatic originality of the hand-drawn "Lilo & Stitch" wouldn't cure in an animated minute.
MPAA rating: G
Times guidelines: Attacking bears a little frightening for youngest audiences and two of the characters die.
Released by Walt Disney Pictures. Directors Aaron Blaise and Robert Walker. Producer Chuck Williams. Screenplay by Tab Murphy and Lorne Cameron & David Hoselton and Steve Bencich & Ron J. Friedman. Editor Tim Mertens. Music Mark Mancina and Phil Collins. Art director Robh Ruppel. Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes.
Exclusively at El Capitan Theatre, 6838 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. Opens in general release Nov. 1.