10 December 2009

DISNEY ANIMATION: WELL AND TRULY, I'M ON MY WAY NOW

Brother Bear is the platonic ideal of a completely vanilla animated children's movie: the one Disney film that, whenever I mention that I've been working my way through the whole animated canon, I can guarantee that whomever I'm talking to forgot that it exists. Even I keep forgetting that it exists: when working on scheduling issues in the past couple of weeks, half the time I mentally tallied up all the movies still to come, this was the one I kept skipping - "Treasure Planet, Home on the Range, The Princess and the Frog... wait, that's 44. I know there are 45. Did I mis-count? Oh, wait, no, Brother Bear." Among the late-period Disney films, it lacks the infamy of Atlantis: The Lost Empire, the cult of The Emperor's New Groove, the marketing presence of Lilo & Stitch, the hallucinatory, "did they really make that?" quality of Treasure Planet - even Home on the Range has privilege of place, as theoretically the last traditionally animated feature produced by Walt Disney Feature Animation, until John Lasseter took over and announced the 2-D revival. Brother Bear is at best the one left over, the one that made a decent amount of money and sold well on DVD, despite the fact that nobody you personally know seems to have seen it. It is quite possibly the most easily-ignorable film of Disney's 49-feature canon - a perfect object with absolutely no personality.

I find this ironic, because this was the only traditionally-animated Disney feature I saw in theaters after Fantasia 2000; the announcement that they were killing the style pushed me into a funk where I would have seen just about anything that came out, just to show my support. Also, I'd heard that the film did an aspect ratio change from 1.75:1 to 2.35:1, and if there's one way to make sure that I'll be there opening night, it's to advertise the presence of an aspect ratio change. Anyway, the moral of the story is that Brother Bear was so hugely unmemorable that by the time Home on the Range came out, I had mostly gotten over my nostalgia, and didn't bother. The other moral is that, even though I saw it in theaters, I remembered less about it than any other film in this retrospective - some of which I hadn't seen for fully five or seven years prior to November, 2003, when Brother Bear debuted. Which at the very least means that it's not tremendously bad - it's not tremendously anything.

Most of what is known about the earliest genesis of the story comes to us from Jeffrey Stepakoff, a television writer who briefly worked with Disney in the mid-'90s; his only credit with the company was "additional story material" for Tarzan, though he has also laid claim to being present at the very beginning, when Michael Eisner informed the animation department that he wanted a movie about bears. What about bears? The fact that they are readily marketable, in Stepakoff's estimation. Various ideas were kicked around - "bear King Lear", "bear Antigone", none of which came to fruition, surprisingly. I mean, by God, if "the CEO wants to sell teddy bears" isn't going to inspire writers to do their best work, what on Earth possibly could?

Eventually the story got whipped into a form that could be shipped off to Florida, to become the third and final movie primarily animated at that studio before it was boxed up, put in mothballs, and replaced by a really crappy walkthrough exhibit that I saw once in 2005 and vowed never to bother with again. And there did the film, under the title Bears (by which name it was known into 2003) come together with what seems to be a minimum of drama, for all my efforts to scrape up the same kind of exciting behind-the-scenes narrative that seems to have haunted every Disney production since Walt started working on his first theme park just can't be found. It's almost as though the Disney animators themselves can't even be bothered to remember Brother Bear to historians and interviewers. The closest I have to something interesting is that originally, this film was set for a spring/summer 2004 release date; but when Home on the Range was beset by a number of story and production problems throughout the first quarter of the decade, the release dates of the two projects were swapped; you would not be able to tell from the evidence on-screen that Brother Bear was sped up at all, nor that it was being wrapped up even as they were carrying out the furniture and turning off the lights at the Florida studio; in the end, the last bits of animation were done in Paris, which also closed its doors following the end of this film's production.

The nugget of the film, from all the way back in the Bears days, is that a young man from a native tribe somewhere in the part of North America that would eventually become Canada, turns into a bear and thus learns to be a better man. Cute, huh? The exact nature of how this coming-of-age should be enforced was the result of some dithering, whether the protagonist was avenging his father or his brother, whether he turns into a bear and meets an older bear who teaches him about life, or meets a younger bear who teaches him about family, and so on, and so forth, AREN'T THOSE STUFFED TOYS READY YET? Well, hurry UP, the Christmas retail season is getting started!

In its final, released form, Brother Bear looks a little something like this: an Inuit narrator (Angayuqaq Oscar Kawagley) who abruptly becomes an English narrator with an Inuit accent (Harold Gould - man, nothing says "Inuit narrator" like a man from Schenectady named Harold Gould) tells us of a story that took place long ago, when the mammoths still roamed the world. In those days of his youth-

Sometimes I wish you could blog the sound of a phonograph needle scratching comically to a halt. I'd do that right now. Okay, so we're about... 45 seconds into the movie, and I already have a question. Mr. Narrator? Are you trying to imply that when you were a young man, there were herds of mammoths all around in North America, and now they are extinct? Because that is what it sounds like you are implying. I must assume that you are either 1000 years old, or that you and your tribe hunted the shit out of mammoths for a while back there, and I do not think that you wish for me to think either of these things.

Anyway, back a LONG TIME AGO, when MAMMOTHS WALKED THE EARTH, about 40 years ago, there were three brothers: Sitka (D.B. Sweeney) was the eldest, Denahi (Jason Raize) in the middle, and the youngest was Kenai (Joaquin Phoenix). The film opens on the day of Kenai's coming-of-age ceremony, when he is to be given his animal totem by the spirits of the earth (to whom we are introduced in a big old production number called "Great Spirits", written by Phil Collins and performed by Tina Turner, and it's quite embarrassing how much the filmmakers want us to be thinking of "Circle of Life"), and thereby set on the path to become a man. This is a big moment for Kenai, who in the grand tradition of Disney males is tired of being seen as an immature screw-up, and he wants a chance to prove himself: will he be given a saber-toothed cat totem, demonstrating his commitment to the path of bravery? Fortitude? Other manly virtues.

No. Instead, the spirits have directed that the old medicine woman Tanana (which, in my head, every time I hear it or read it, is followed inexorably by "tananana, she got diamonds on the soles of her shoes". I'm sorry, I meant to write, "voiced by Joan Copeland") to give Kenai the bear totem - right, we saw the title, too - signifying love for all things of the earth. Kenai has little use for a pussy concept like "love", and thus he makes off to prove his worth as a hunter: having once again screwed up, in this case by letting a bear get to the basket of salmon he and his brothers just caught, he is off to track that self-same bear, mostly to get the basket back although it's easy to see that part of him wants to kill it and let off some steam.

Naturally enough, he catches up to the bear and finds it not at all so accommodating to his plans as all that: indeed, the bear seems quite eager to kill him first. Sitka and Denahi come to his rescue, but in the process, Sitka tumbles to his death off a cliff. The bear falls with him, but survives; Denahi wants to call things done at this point, but Kenai insists on finding and slaying the bear, out of a most inappropriate and un-love-for-all-things-of-the-earth desire for revenge. He chases her into the wilds, and on the very peak of a mountain the man and animal fight for their lives; a fight that Kenai only barely wins (or "bearly" wins, amirite? Haha! Erm...). The young man's reward for this victory is to be punished by the spirits, including Sitka, who has transcended his human form to become a spirit eagle of guidance, for this gross violation of loving the earth: he is turned into a bear. And when Denahi comes upon this passed-out bear lying among Kenai's tattered clothes, he makes the obvious conclusion, and begins his own journey to slay the beast that, he thinks, has killed both of his brothers.

Brother Bear falls into two movies, defined by a whole lot of different things: the most obvious is that for 24 minutes, Kenai is a human, and for the rest of the film (including credits, it clocks in at almost precisely 85 minutes), he is a bear. This is also the point at which the screen widens from 1.75:1 to 2.35:1, as advertised (which, incidentally, is an effect that actually works better on a television than it did in a theater - the window-boxed first act seems all the more cramped, and thus the widescreen all the wider in comparison), signifying the expansion of Kenai's perception that is permitted as a result of his transformation. But the change that really leaps out and grabs you, if you're even a tiny bit attentive to the visual language of movies, is the massive change in the film's color palette. The "human" third is presented only in muted tones, golds and greys primarily. Kenai's transformation is depicted with much more brightness and saturation, but still in the same color family as the whole movie has used so far. Then, at last, when he opens his groggy eyes after falling from the mountain into a river far below, it is to see an overwhelming Day-Glo landscape of colors so bright and over-saturated, they almost cut your retinas.

As for the narrative shift the movie makes at this point: Kenai, now an animal, can speak the language of all other animals, though he also loses the ability to speak Inuit, a very unfortunate state given that Denahi is now hunting him. With his new-found ability to talk to the animals, Kenai meets first a pair of moose brothers, Rutt (Rick Moranis) and Tuke (Dave Thomas), and then a little bear cub named Koda (Jeremy Suarez), separated from his mother and looking to find his way to the great salmon run, where all the bears of the region end up. Thus begins the travelogue, with the moose tagging along after the bears due to their fear of the hunter stalking around. Along the way, Kenai finds the little cub warming up to him as a big brother, and learning to his shock that he doesn't entirely hate the fact of being responsible for another being. He is, you might say, learning to love all things of the earth. Of course as neither of the characters know, but every viewer damned well ought to be able to guess by the end of Koda's first scene, Kenai killed the cub's mother, and when the fact comes out, it will likely put a strain on their happy little adoptive family group.

While it's easy to say that Brother Bear is on the whole a compulsively bland experience, what is rather surprising is that the two parts (they are not properly considered "halves") are so very different in quality. The 24 minutes in which Kenai is a human are actually quite credible filmmaking for an animation studio in the waning days of its existence: the three brothers are fairly well-delineated, given distinct personalities that come through in their movements far more than in the fairly anonymous vocal performances - the leading animators were James Young Jackson on Kenai, in his second supervising position; Sitka was handled by Anthony Wayne Michaels in his first supervising job and, apparently, the last bit of cinema he ever worked on; Denahi was the responsibility of Ruben Aquino, by far the most senior member of the film's animation staff (he also supervised David in Lilo & Stitch, explaining perhaps why Denahi kind of looks like that character).

The backgrounds, limited though their palette might have been, are quite dramatic and beautiful; indeed, the fixation on such a narrow range of colors gives them a certain starkness that is altogether becoming. It really feels like a Canadian wilderness trapped in perpetual winter and cold, where the humans are surrounded by hostility and the unknown. Not that I was around in the late Ice Age, of course, but that is the beauty of art: to present a world that none of us could experience, and do it in such a way that we might say, "yes - yes, that's quite right".

Of course, there are the expected problems with the story, and even at times with the execution: the three brothers act a bit too much like late-20th Century mallrats for my tastes, which certainly distracts from the setting that the visuals have done such good work at establishing. There's an elk stampede stolen right out from The Lion King, with a dash of the gallimimus sequence from Jurassic Park thrown in because. And, like Treasure Planet, the whole film but this act in particular engages in some really peculiar abuse of Deep Canvas for shots that might have been much better off done according to technology that had been available for decades before computers were invented. Still and all, the first 24 minutes, had they been stretched for another hour, would have left us with a faintly disposable but still fairly engaging story about stone-age life, presented with sometimes effective comedy and characterisations. Then Kenai has to become a bear, and it all goes to Hell.

Or, it goes to Boring City, which is rather part of the exurban sprawl of Purgatory, than Hell specifically. I'd be incredibly hard-pressed to make a single substantive criticism of Brother Bear once the actual plot kicks in. Okay, so that's not actually at all true: from the moment I first heard about it in 2003, all the way up until I just rewatched it for this review, I really don't know who thought it was a good idea for Moranis and Thomas to resurrect the McKenzie brothers from SCTV in a talking-animals Disney cartoon (though, bless the movie, there is a sort of slantways beer joke snuck in right at the end), and that I suppose that can safely count as a distinct and appalling flaw, because it's really pretty weird, eh? But outside of that, the film's greatest sin is simply that nothing remotely interesting happens, and the characters it doesn't happen to are as routine and unengaging as the plot. A sassy little kid teaches an angry young adult about life and being a free spirit? Sheeyit. At least the whole bear angle is original, though not terrible special: once you've seen 20 Disney animated features with talking animals (yes, I counted, skipping the package features), the 21st just doesn't seem quite that engaging anymore, especially knowing that lucky number 22 is right down the pike.

Far worse, is that in this case, the ability to depict talking animals seems to have finally stopped amusing even the animators: the major bears all look sufficiently distinctive that you can tell them apart at a glance, but they pretty much just look like cartoon bears - we are a long way from Lady and the Tramp, wherein the characters' dogginess is such a key part of their personalities; we are even a far cry from Oliver & Company, which at least had the decency to make all the animals ethnic or cultural stereotypes. There's nothing terrible special about any of the characters visually: they're well-animated, true enough, in terms of having facial expressions that read as human without sacrificing their bear-ness, but that's true of "Bongo" from Fun and Fancy Free, released all of 56 years earlier. That the movie was designed to move plush toys seems appallingly likely, the more one considers it: the are all shaggy, cuddly, easily reproduced, and that's it. Coming just a year and a half after the same studio and in many cases the same animators produced Lilo & Stitch, a movie with similarly plushy, cute characters who were nevertheless very specific and idiosyncratic in appearance, it's doubly disappointing that Brother Bear should invest so little energy into making the characters looking interesting (Stitch and Koda were both supervised by Alex Kupershmidt, making the comparison all the more frustrating).

And the rest of the film's design is pretty much just the same: the bright colors are certainly a surprise when they show up, but not terribly compelling, not in the Lilo & Stitch storybook mode, nor in the Sleeping Beauty striking graphic art mode, and not in the Hercules brassy cartoon mode. It's pretty indiscriminately bright and colorful, just for the sake of it. At least the effects animation is pretty darn good, especially some of the Deep Canvas shots (it's strange how badly that technology is used at first, and how well as the movie progresses - not Tarzan well, but the next best thing), and the frequent depiction of the Aurora Borealis. But good effects animation is merely our due, if we have paid for a Disney film; effects animation is the one constant that has carried us through even the darkest moments of the '40s or '70s.

What else is there to say? The songs by Phil Collins, played over montages, Tarzan-style, are helplessly forgettable (I saw the movie less than a day ago, and all I can remember are the chorus from Tina Turner's number, and three or four lines from "On My Way" and "Welcome", the two songs where nearly all of the emotional heavy-lifting in the story is done in montage: don't need to show Kenai and Koda becoming like brothers if you can just show them laughing with each other, set to music! The cast, I mentioned, is pretty bland, except for the random McKenzie inserts. The story tries to tug at your heartstrings, but absent well-defined, interesting characters - and present a hugely obvious "surprise" that kick-starts the third act - there's just not much to hold onto there. This is, in all essentials, the most neutral of all Disney films: a scoop of artificial vanilla ice cream served in a paper cup. Well do I remember thing in 2003, that if this was the best that Disney animation could still do, it were better that it would just die already, and leave my warm memories to rest in peace.

7 comments:

Tom said...

And this was nominated for the Best Animated Feature Oscar?

JenSmall said...

I'm sorry you had to rewatch this, but thank you so much for this review. I laughed out loud about 12 times! Especially with Tanana.

GeoX said...

Was that a Clay Davis "Sheeyit?" If so, I think I love you.

Daniel said...

One of the trailers for this film – featuring the McKenzie Mooses – was one of the funniest I can remember.

One of them started to say, “If you only see one film this year…” before the other interrupted and said, wait, the people they’re pitching to are in a theater to see another film already. So if they only see one film this year, they’re pretty much already watching it.

So the first continues, “Hey, those of you who only see one film each year: GO HOME NOW!”

The.Watcher said...

Heh, I DID forget this existed, even though I watched this in the cinema and I'm pretty sure on Home Video too.

I'm writing this comment after reading the first paragraph of your review, and for the life of me I can't remember what this movie is about.

The.Watcher said...

OK, I read through your review.
If you would've asked me, as someone who has seen the movie, what it was about, I would've strained my memory and come up with something that is not in the least bit similar to Brother Bear.

Even now, after you described the first 2 acts, I have no recollection of the third at all.

Shaun said...

last summer, i worked at A&W, and pretty much everyday someone was talking about this stupid movie. I mean, someone in the staff owned this movie, and he kept lending it out to everyone, like it was some kind of masterpiece. I haven't seen it, but I really see no reason to watch it now, although I will say that I loved this Disney movie retrospective, and the time you took to watch each movie and write a review was really appreciated.