The Disney animation machine, known for churning out kid-pleasing characters and parent-pleasing life lessons, tackles the ''walk a mile in someone else's shoes'' theme in Brother Bear.
As the Ice Age ends, we meet Kenai, a headstrong teenager anxiously waiting to receive his ''totem'' or symbol from the Great Spirits that will help guide him through life. His two older brothers, Sitka and Denahi, have really cool totems--an eagle and a wolf, respectively--and Kenai is hoping to get something equally manly. Yet when Kenai is given a bear totem, which represents love, the young man is humiliated, and he vents his frustrations by charging after a bear that's stolen a basket of fish. His brothers rush to stop him, and the ensuing battle with the bear ends in tragedy: Sitka dies trying to save Kenai, and the grief-stricken younger brother vows to hunt the fleeing animal down in revenge. Just as Kenai catches and kills the bear, the Great Spirits start their fun, transforming Kenai into a bear and telling him that to become human again he must find the place where ''the lights touch the mountain.'' Kenai, a very reluctant bear, sets out on his quest, picking up a traveling companion--an oh-so-cute bear cub named Koda--who knows the way. Kenai begins to see the world through the bear's eyes, and as he gains respect for the animal, he finds the true meaning of his totem. Imagine that. It's a formulaic story, but somewhat enjoyable, and certainly no kid will find fault with it.
Despite thematic similarities, Brother Bear is no Ice Age. While both films succeed in conveying a heartwarming message about man and nature during prehistoric times, Ice Age is full of clever dialogue and witty banter, giving stars such as Ray Romano and John Leguizamo a chance to shine as animated characters. Brother Bear's dialogue sounds more preachy and Saturday morning cartoonish, which leaves the voice cast very little to work with--including the Oscar-nominated Joaquin Phoenix as Kenai; Bernie Mac's Jeremy Suarez as little Koda and D.B. Sweeney as Sitka. The saving graces, at least for the parents in the audience, are Rutt and Tuke, a pair of wisecracking moose. Voiced by old friends and SCTV alums Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas, the moose performances recall brothers Bob and Doug McKenzie, a hilarious pair of Canadian brewery workers Moranis and Thomas immortalized on SCTV (and in film, too--remember the 1983 Strange Brew?). Of course, Rutt and Tuke are a slightly modified version of the McKenzie brothers since they don't actually wear down jackets, drink copious amounts of beer or complain about the hosers of the world, eh? Still, you can tell pros Moranis and Thomas had fun as their moose counterparts, commenting on whichever situation they happen to find themselves in. Pay particular attention to their banter as they catch a ride on the backs of some traveling woolly mammoths.
Disney's Brother Bear animators use all their handy little tricks to paint a rugged and spectacularly beautiful Pacific Northwest landscape, but Bear ultimately comes off as another commercial Mouse House product made to generate Christmas merchandising bucks. You get the feeling these guys can do this stuff in their sleep, and you suspect they probably did. Even the original songs, which usually stand out in a Disney film, seem fresh off the assembly line. Singer-songwriter Phil Collins penned six brand new songs for this movie, including the main theme song ''Great Spirits,'' but they all seem to hearken back the formula he used in the Academy Award-winning ''You'll Be in My Heart'' from 1999's animated Tarzan--similar rhythms, same basic tune, if a little easier on the bongo drums. This is the Pacific Northwest, after all, not the African jungle.
Brother Bear should please most kids, but its formulaic story, thinly drawn characters and predictable animation prove Disney needs to try a little harder next time.