Saturday, March 30, 2013

2003 - Brother Bear

A ‘dude flick’, for lack of a better term, can be a very difficult thing to make. I say for lack of a better term because for some weird reason, there’s not a name for the male equivalent of a ‘chick flick’. You know the type I mean, even if we don't have a word for it. A movie specifically designed to play on the emotions of its male audience. There’s a handful of good examples I can throw out. Field of Dreams is the archetype, but there’s also Big Fish, The Full Monty, Good Will Hunting, Dead Poet’s Society, the Shawshank Redemption… They’re less common than their female equivalent, probably due to the strong patriarchal culture deeming emotions “unmanly”, but those that come around and make an impact tend to be very good, as the list there should indicate. Why am I leading with this? I don’t know. Maybe being philosophical is a way to avoid thinking about THIS TERRIBLE GODDAMN MOVIE. GRRRRARGH? So am I. So forage for berries and snap up a salmon in your jaws, and let’s talk about Brother Bear.

My opening paragraph there wasn’t a complete non-sequitur. This is pretty transparently meant to be a movie for guys. Brothers, to be precise. And since Treasure Planet dealt with father figures and male bonding so well, I was fairly optimistic. And for the first 20 minutes, it is good. Very good, as a matter of fact. It deals with Kenai, the youngest of three brothers, receiving his spirit totem, a bear that represents love. The interplay between him and his brothers Sitka and Denahi is natural and heartwarming, and you can see the culture and the history they share. Sitka has become a man, Denahi is on his way, and Kenai is just starting his journey. But when Kenai runs afoul of a bear, Sitka gives his own life to protect his brothers, and Kenai starts on a dark path. Against Denahi’s advice, he goes after the bear in revenge and kills it. In retribution, the spirits change him into a bear. And the movie turns to GARBAGE.

There is a good movie that follows, they just chose not to make it. The basic plot is fine. Kenai tries to find his way to a place where he can meet the spirits and get changed back, guided by a hyperactive cub who got separated from his mother. Congratulations, by the way, you just figured out the shocking twist. Yes, the cub belonged to the bear Kenai killed, and along the journey, they go through all the usual buddy-movie bonding stuff until Kenai sees him as a new brother, tearfully confesses his actions, and chooses to stay a bear to be where he is needed. To add drama, they are being stalked the whole time by a grief-stricken Denahi, who has mistaken Kenai for the bear that “killed” his brothers.

Of course, in the end, everything's back to... normal? 

When I write it down like that, it doesn’t seem that bad. So what went wrong? Ohhhh, so much. Let’s start with the visuals. In the beginning, the color palate is very muted and realistic. When Kenai gets beared, the color palate gets more cartoony and colorful, and the animals get more anthropomorphized. This regrettably undercuts a lot of the drama, and they don‘t invest any time in the sort of sweeping vistas that were once so common to this company, which is a huge waste of the gorgeous Canadian setting. Though apparently in theaters, they shifted the aspect ratio into crazy widescreen when he changed, so maybe the scenery looks better that way? I don’t know, that wasn’t featured on my DVD version.

The pacing of the whole thing is bad, too. The movie perks up any time Denahi almost catches them, or when they flash back to the initial bear attack from the mother’s perspective, but for the most part, it slows down and flattens out as soon as the change happens. A lot of the blame for this goes to a pair of comic relief moose, who - Never mind, we’ll get to them. But the larger part of it is on the script, which can’t lay out its scenes properly, and covers the whole thing with hacky, overwrought dialogue.

The music is another point taken away, which is a real shame, because it’s Phil Collins again, trying to do what he did with Tarzan. But lightning isn’t striking twice here. The songs are forgettable at best, and some of them are reeeeeal stinkers. And only about half of them are sung by Collins, which means you lose the through line of one voice that made it work in Tarzan, but at the moments when it is Collins, it just seems derivative and distracting. Also he rhymes “festival” with “best of all”, which makes me want to choke him. The worst moment, though, has to be when Kenai confesses that he killed Koda’s mother, and just as he begins, his voice fades down and Collins takes over with the worst song in the movie. It’s like on Downton Abbey, where they tend to cut away and skip very interesting conversations because Julian Fellowes doesn’t like writing confrontation, I guess. Only instead of cutting away to Thomas scheming or Molesley failing, we have to watch the conversation happen while Phil Collins sings a lousy song at us.

Guess which of these is the exact face I was making.

The casting is… Not terrible. Mostly. To my annoyance, no actual Inuit or other Native American actors were used (Well, one narrator guy at the beginning). While I’ve maintained this isn’t necessary, it has been nice and added an air of authenticity to the films that is missing in this one. The actors are fine though. Joaquin Phoenix is Kenai, and since this is before he went bonkers, he does well. Jason Raize, the original Simba from the Broadway version of The Lion King, is Denahi, and he does very well. Sitka is D.B. Sweeney again, but little is asked of him, so he’s not a disappointment. Not-awful child actor Jeremy Suarez is Koda, and reliable actors like Michael Clarke Duncan, Greg Proops, and Estelle Harris turn up for small parts as some other bears. Then there’s the moose…

Okay, here’s the thing about the moose. They’re the McKenzie brothers. Yeah, from SCTV and the movie “Strange Brew”. And that’s not some dig at Canadians, either. They are voiced by Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas, same voices, same style of humor, same patterns of speech, same everything. And I like the McKenzie brothers, I really do. But it doesn’t work. They are used way too much, they never have any effect on the plot, and their bits can get intensely awkward. I will admit they got a laugh out of me when they announced their intention to go eat some barley and amber wheat over malted hops. Even being in a G-rated Disney flick can’t stop the McKenzies from their beer.

Remarkably, the culture was handled very well. It helps that it takes place 10,000 or so years ago and the tribe isn’t tied to any concrete historical figures, so they get a lot of leeway in their portrayal of the Natives. The magic aspect was less offensive than it was in Pocahontas, as it was portrayed as a fundamental part of nature, rather than Magical Native Americans casting spells. So that’s all passable. But then, it’s only really present in the good opening scenes. There’s also only one woman in the entire movie. She’s the shaman of the tribe, and throws out some exposition occasionally, but that’s about it. I mean, I get that the movie’s about brothers, but come on. Even in the animal world, there’s just two female bears, and they get one or two lines each. And I guess Koda’s mom, but she’s a cypher.

Sadly, Mountain Dew would not be invented for another ten thousand years.

This is a really short review, but I don’t want to put any more thought into this movie. It was just one long missed opportunity, a chance for a good movie tossed away by a nervous film company. It did fine financially, but domestic sales were sluggish, and critics were lukewarm. The writing was on the wall, and next week’s entry would seal the 2D deal. At least temporarily.


* Kenai’s totem animal is the Bear of Love, and Sitka’s is the Eagle of Leadership. Denahi’s is the something of Wisdom, but they never tell us what. So I’ma go with Triforce.

* While I’m in no mood to watch this movie again right now, I might take another whack at it someday, since the DVD has commentary by the moose, improvised by Thomas and Moranis. I can see that working better than they did in the movie.

Are... are they watching the movie they're in?

* While there’s only one named woman in the movie, there is one female character I find very compelling. In the very beginning, during a tribal ritual, a girl breaks free of her mother’s arms and runs into the circle of men, briefly attempting to join their ceremonial dance. I like to imagine she’s going to grow up to challenge gender roles. Because I can imagine whatever I want. It’s got to be better than the actual sequel.

* The opening is animated by an elderly Denahi, who says it took place “Long ago, when the great mammoths still roamed our lands.” I’m pretty sure that was for our benefit, because to us that’s ancient, but to the kids he was speaking with, it would be like 40 years ago. Man, those mammoths must have gone extinct quick.

* There is one good comedy bit of a goat arguing with his own echo. I laughed. Thought I’d mention it.

* There’s a bald eagle in this movie, and rather than screeching majestically like they do in most movies, it makes an accurate sound, which is rather like a seagull, a fact that is hilariously disappointing to many Americans.

Awfully considerate of the ancestors to put their handprints way up there so you wouldn't have to stretch or anything.

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