21 May 2013

DISNEY SEQUELS: KNOWING I CAN FACE THE THINGS THAT USED TO SEEM SO HARD

We've officially hit the point where it's just silly: we have arrived at the existence of Brother Bear 2. What explains the justification for this project, if anything, beyond the power-drunk realisation that the DisneyToon Studios DTV films cost very little to make and brought in at least some amount of profit no matter what, is totally unknown to me, and impossible to guess. Say whatever horrible things one wants to about the earlier Disney sequels, but they all, more or less, were marketable. But 2003's Brother Bear isn't Lilo & Stitch, or Mulan, or Lady and the Tramp; it's not even The Hunchback of Notre Dame. It is a film about which the single most salient fact is that it underwhelmed at the box office, thus smoothing the path for Disney to shut down its traditional animation program. Not exactly the kind of legacy that you'd think would have convinced anybody that a sequel would be met by an eager fanbase. I dunno, maybe they were hoping that they could retroactively legitimise the first movie by giving it a sequel: "See, it's an animated classic! It has those characters so beloved that we brought them back!"

I'll say this much for Brother Bear 2: it's a good sequel. Or an appropriate one, anyway. By which I mean, my response to this film was very nearly identical to my response to the first: having an incredibly hard time remembering its content even a couple of hours after I watched it, and seeing no reason for the story to have been told outside of a defiant "Um, because".

That being the case, it's still noteworthy that the film proceeds more or less logically from the first movie, outside of the arguable point that the depiction of Inuit society presented there doesn't entirely gel with the depiction here; the whole entire narrative of Brother Bear 2 hinges upon its protagonist's years-ago friendship with a girl from another tribe, or merchant camp, or something that's not actually clarified very well. It's bothersome in a way that I let become far too much of a problem for me.

But anyway, spotting the movie that a girl from the next tribe over doesn't really fit in with the implied world of the first Brother Bear, mostly we're in the realm of plausibly organic developments from the situation at the end of the last movie, in which human-turned-bear Kenai (Patrick Dempsey, an alarmingly fucking weird replacement for Joaquin Phoenix) and his adopted cub brother Koda (Jeremy Suarez) are just waking up from their first hibernation as a new little family. It's mating season, and the rest of the bears are insisting upon Kenai going off to find some sweet hairy thing, but he wants to keep things strictly a boy's club, and Koda is absolutely fine with that. All is not totally un-fraught, though; Kenai has of late been recalling his childhood sweetheart, a certain Nita (Mandy Moore), and Koda is moderately concerned that his big brother's resolute "no girls!" stance might be less stable than he'd like.

Naturally enough, Nita is about to re-enter Kenai's life. It's the day of her wedding to a strapping hunk of Inuit man meat named Atka (Jeff Bennett), and she's excited and scared, as a bride will be; she has reason to be extra-scared, though, as it turns out that the Great Spirits themselves don't want this marriage to take place, through a thunderstorm and an earthquake at the ceremony. Fans of the original will recall that the Great Spirits don't go in for half-measures, or subtlety. Immediately consulting with the local wise woman Innoko (Wanda Sykes), Nita finds that this is because she's been promised to Kenai ever since receiving his pendant as a child, after rescuing her from a frozen river. The only way to free herself from this betrothal is if both she and Kenai - whom she knows to be a bear, which strikes me as just odd, but probably not for a legitimate reason - journey to the exact spot where he gave her the pendant in the first place, and burn it. This would seem to be an awful lot of contrivance on the Great Spirits' part, but if they made it simple, then Kenai and Nita won't have several days together in which to fall back in love. Oops, spoilers. Also, I want to point out that Kenai is still a bear and Nita is still a human as they fall back in love, which arguably makes Brother Bear 2 the first-ever Disney film to actively court an audience of furries.

The beats are telegraphed to an unbelievably precise degree, and that sense of inevitable fatality is one of my bigger problems with the movie, particularly since filmmakers Benjamin Gluck (the director) and Rich Burns (the only credited writer) forget to do the thing that all proper 21st Century romantic comedies do - and let me tell you, the instant your realise that Brother Bear 2 is a Disney furry romcom for children is not a happy instant - by making it clear that Nita has dodged an incredibly huge bullet with Atka, who is a complete and irredeemable dickhole. On the contrary! In his brief appearance, Atka seems to be quite pleasant and levelheaded, being forced into the designated villain role because he tries to kill the bear that started rampaging through his village, roaring like the gates of Hell. But not at all because he's actually, in any meaningful way, a villain. It is frankly not clear to me at all why Nita wouldn't be better off sticking with him, and thus sparing us the somewhat unattractive moral that the first person you fall in love with is clearly the person you should end up with, even if ten years later he is a member of a different species and you've hooked up with a new man that you and every member of your family seem to genuinely like. Somehow, all the daft princess shit seems actually less damaging to me than that message, which proclaims brightly and reflexively, "don't let go of the past!"

That is my ideological objection to Brother Bear 2. I also have a more general narrative objection, which is the film's semi-awareness that it doesn't even have plot to fill its ultimate 73 minutes, and so a bunch of nonsensical incidents have to be trotted out to push the thing up to feature's worth of running time. This mostly takes the form of some easily-avoidable crisis cropping up because one or more of the three travelers acts in an aggressively stupid way, making things bad and then making them even worse, just to create a problem that can then be solved. I still prefer that to the script's other gambit, which is to bring out the comic relief. I was already not a fan of the moose brothers Rutt (Rick Moranis) and Tuke (Dave Thomas) in the first movie, when they only had to be stupid and bumbling. I like them even less when they are given a complimentary B-plot, in which they relentlessly and incompetently pursue a pair of lady moose - the film christens them with the ugly word "moosettes" - who are not named in the film proper, though the credits assure us they are called Anda and Kata, voiced respectively by Andrea Martin and Catherine O'Hara, Moranis and Thomas's old SCTV castmates, neither of them given anything that in any inhabited universe resembles enough to do, given their massive talent. But whatever, even Canadian comedy icons need to eat. The point being, it was odd enough to hear Moranis and Thomas doing an animated, kid-friendly parody of the McKenzie brothers; it's just damn depressing to hear them doing an audibly disinterested retread of that parody.

Comic relief is a major problem for the film: the moose are actually the least annoying. The most annoying is probably the strange pair of aunts helping Nita get ready for her wedding, played by Wendy Malick and Kathy Najimy as a pair of passive-aggressive old hens who do not even marginally resemble any human beings that you'd expect to see in prehistoric Canada. But they are given a hefty run for their money by Sykes, playing a sassy black feminist in a narrative universe where, by all sanity, not one of those three things should attain. All of this is to say: Brother Bear 2 has a huge injection of quippy contemporary humor, and given that Rutt and Tuke were the only modern embellishments in the first movie, the fact that the sequel feels like it takes place within shouting distance of a Southern California shopping mall is just strange. Not all of it is the comedy; some of it is as simple, pervasive, and damaging as the utterly uncontrolled vocal performances of Dempsey and Moore, neither of them attempting in even the smallest way not to sound like 21st Century actors. Suarez, whose performance is exactly identical to the flippant kid routine he did in the last picture, has suddenly but definitively become the most period-authentic voice actor with a lead role. That's how far afield we've gotten.

It looks good, though, so that's a thing. The one thing that Brother Bear absolutely had going for it was a complex and gorgeously classical vocabulary of wilderness art, using colors and textures skillfully to suggest landscape paintings with depth and body and movement, and of course Brother Bear 2 isn't vaguely interested in competing with it on that front, for budgetary reasons if nothing else. Even so, it's much more handsome than most DisneyToon productions, even taking into account that studio's undeniable upswing in quality throughout the mid-00s, and the character animation, though a little prone to mugging (especially with Kenai, though I imagine Dempsey's performance doesn't help), is smooth and evocative. I would speak against the character design of Nita, but I think my real problem is that Moore's voice coming out of that face is a much bigger problem than the face itself.

The whole thing, basically, is totally bland. The basic level of storytelling competence is such that the flaws do not seriously damage it, nor do the few, but legitimate, strengths do much to save it. It's such a big, fluffy, nothing of a movie, as pointedly blank and inoffensive as the lazy, anonymous songs contributed by a slumming Melissa Etheridge. With its weirdly adult-centered narrative wrapped around characters that nobody had all that much affection for to begin with, it's hard to even speak bromides about "oh, but the kids would like it!" I honestly don't see why anybody would like it, any more than I see why anybody would dislike it. It's just a neutral object, with bears.

1 comment:

Robert Burgless said...

Damn, Tim. I haven't even seen this movie and I was never going to, but I'm nonetheless shocked by how well you told of the film's overall quality.

What do you think would of happened if they made any MORE sequels of the 00's films - like Treasure Planet? Imagine that, Tim. Treasure Planet 2.

Can't wait for your thoughts on Ariel's Beginning.