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" 'Brother Bear' is a solid and heartfelt movie, and will probably end up being appreciated even more by adults than their children."
--Ocala Star-Banner review of Brother Bear


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Ocala Star-Banner (Ocala, FL)
Brother Bear Review
by Christopher Lloyd, Entertainment Editor
September 29, 2003

So many people are insisting hand-drawn animation is going the way of the dodo, it's hard to hear anything else over the chorus. Certainly the fate of this past summer's animated fare -- the computer-animated "Finding Nemo" went on to become the highest-growing animated film of all time, and the moribund hand-drawn "Sinbad" sunk into the ocean -- didn't offer much in the way of dissent with this notion.

But good traditional animation films are still being made, and Disney is the studio making them -- more specifically, the Florida outpost of the Disney animation empire. They were responsible for the lovely, lyrical (and slightly naughty) "Lilo & Stitch," a big success from last summer. They also offered the more adult "Mulan" a few years ago. They're back again with "Brother Bear," a moving and often raucously funny tale of an Ice Age-era Eskimo who is transformed into a bear.

The voice of the main character, Kenai, is provided by Joaquin Phoenix, whose voice is not what you typically would get from a Disney flick. It's slightly raspy with a reedy quality, and you could easily imagine it coming out of the mouth of a a sage old man or an awkward teen.

As the story opens, Kenai is on the threshold of initiation. During a tribal ceremony, he is presented with a totem that will represent the path he must take to reach manhood. He's hoping it will be something as cool as that of his older brothers: the totem of Denahi (voice by Jason Raize) is wisdom, while Sitka (D.B. Sweeney) is the eagle of leadership. Kenai is crushed when he's presented with the bear, representing love -- not exactly the manliest of totems.

"Who wants to trade?" Kenai asks, earning a swipe of rebuke from the tribal wise woman (Joan Copeland).

But circumstance soon leads to tragedy, and Kenai's obsession with killing a bear that wronged him ends with him being transformed into a bear himself by the great spirits in the sky, represented as the aurora borealis. Kenai is astonished when he can understand the speech of the other animals, such as a pair of wiseacre moose siblings (voiced by Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas, reprising their old McKenzie Brothers comedy routine ... although neither one ever calls the other a "hoser").

Then Kenai meets Koda (Jeremy Suarez from TV's "Bernie Mac"), a talkative, energetic bear cub separated from his mother. Reluctantly, Kenai agrees to accompany Koda to the salmon run where the bears gather to feast, because he has reason to believe the key to regaining his human form will be found there. Needless to say, they have lots of adventures, and the grumpy Kenai finds himself growing attached to the troublesome youngster.

First-time directors Aaron Blaise and Robert Walker made an astonishing and brave choice to visually punctuate Kenai's transformation from human to bear. For the first part of the film, the aspect ratio is 1.85, the standard for most movies and virtually all animated films. When Kenai awakens as a bear, the ratio suddenly switches to the much wider 2.35, also known as CinemaScope, and the palette of colors instantly grows more saturated and vivid.

Although most audience members probably won't be able to articulate exactly what happened, the effect is fantastic. I can't recall any other movie, animated or otherwise, switching aspect ratios in the middle.

The songs by Phil Collins, who also co-wrote the score with Mark Mancina and did the songs for "Tarzan," are uplifting and catchy, particularly the jaunty traveling tune, "On My Way."

With three features now under the belt of the Florida Disney animation team, it's worthwhile to draw contrasts between their animated films and those of the main crew in California. The Florida Disney films aren't musicals -- which is to say, the characters don't suddenly break out into song (actually, Koda does once, though Phil Collins quickly takes over the singing duties). Music, and even songs with lyrics, are used as background for pivotal scenes. The Florida movies are also a little more grown-up thematically, but also darker and less politically correct. Put that all together, and I'd say the Florida films are less obviously kid-pleasers, but more likely to resonate with grown-ups.

"Brother Bear" is a solid and heartfelt movie, and will probably end up being appreciated even more by adults than their children.

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