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(2003) (voices of Joaquin Phoenix, Jeremy Suarez) (G)

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Animated Drama: A prehistoric teen is magically turned into a bear so that he can see the error of his thinking, that includes his hatred of bears, and become a man.
Kenai (voice of JOAQUIN PHOENIX), Denahi (voice of JASON RAIZE) and Sitka (voice of D.B. SWEENEY) are brothers growing up in prehistoric times when mammoths still roam the land. Kenai, the youngest, is set to receive his totem, a symbol that will lead him into manhood and throughout the rest of his life.

Accordingly, he's disappointed when the village shaman, Tanana (voice of JOAN COPELAND), presents him with the totem of Love. He doesn't have much time to think about it, however, as he discovers that a bear has taken the basket of fish he was supposed to have secured. He goes off to retrieve it, but finds more trouble than he expected as he encounters a large and ferocious bear. Denahi and Sitka arrive to help, with Sitka eventually sacrificing his life to save those of his brothers.

Filled with hatred and a lusting for revenge, Kenai again sets out to find the bear, with Denahi not far behind. Kenai ends up killing the bear, but Sitka's spirit decides it's time for his younger brother to grow up and learn a lesson. Thus, he causes Kenai to transform into a bear, a development that obviously doesn't sit well with the bear hater and that Denahi doesn't see, thus leading him to believe that this new bear killed Kenai.

Tanana tells the new bear that he must take up the matter with his brother at the place where the light touches the earth. He then sets out on his journey where he encounters two wacky moose, Rutt (voice of RICK MORANIS) and Tuke (voice of DAVE THOMAS), who prove to be of no help. After getting caught in a bear trap, he meets the young and talkative bear cub, Koda (voice of JEREMY SUAREZ), who agrees to help him escape if he'll take him to the annual Salmon run.

Kenai initially wants nothing to do with Koda, but when he hears that the bear gathering, led by Tug (voice of MICHAEL CLARKE DUNCAN), is near that place where the light touches the earth, he agrees. Along the way, Kenai learns various lessons about himself and others, all while the two must deal with Denahi who's intent on revenging his two brothers' deaths.

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10
While it's not unusual for a great deal of money, personal careers and a studio's fortunes to rest on any given movie, the pressure is unusually high on Disney's "Brother Bear." That's because the future of traditional, hand-drawn animated features -- the very bread and butter that symbolizes Disney and turned it into the powerhouse entity it is today -- may very well lie in the hands and success or failure of this film.

Computer-generated animated films have stolen the thunder and box office take of their hand-drawn brethren, not to mention the imagination of young viewers. If this is indeed the last such film (at least on a grand scale), it's too bad that the genre isn't better represented in its swan song (maybe the effort should have been "Sister Swan" instead).

The story of a prehistoric yet clearly modernized character who becomes a man by becoming a bear (much like Dustin Hoffman became a better man by becoming a woman in "Tootsie"), the film is obviously trying to hit that successful note that manages to entertain both kids and adults. That's what made Disney's offerings such as "Beauty and the Beast" and "The Lion King" such big hits.

Hoping to emulate the success of them, filmmakers Aaron Blaise and Robert Walker (both making their directorial debut) have even gone as far as to recruit "Tarzan" veteran composer Phil Collins to create a number of new songs for this effort. As in Disney's latest efforts, this isn't an animated musical per se - the characters don't suddenly break into song - but the intentions are the same (of furthering the story through song).

Accordingly, we're treated to various musical montages where Collins or guest vocalist Tina Turner impart various plot details or symbolism. Unfortunately, and like much of the film, they're a bit obvious and heavy-handed and clearly aren't the best you've ever seen.

Interestingly enough, the story - penned by the quintet of Tab Murphy ("Atlantis: The Lost Empire," "Tarzan") and Lorne Cameron & David Hoselton ("First Knight," "Like Father, Like Son") and Steve Bencich & Ron J. Friedman (making their feature debut) - starts off in one direction (and screen aspect ratio) and then switches in both in tone and width when the pivotal man to animal transformation occurs. Considering the deaths, revenge motives and mysticism of that shorter first part, it decidedly turns kid-friendly in the rest, probably much to the relief of initially concerned and worried parents.

There's still some action and peril after the transformation. Yet, the songs, annoying "little brother" character and comic relief ones - in the form of two talking moose - will certainly play well with the younger crowd.

All of which is fine and dandy, especially since it comes with a worthwhile message about tolerance and the environment. The problem, which isn't enormous but is obviously present, is two-fold. Such life-lesson messages, while basic enough that most kids will grasp them (at least to some degree) are a bit too obvious and ultimately preachy.

While older kids might not mind or notice, adults in tow might feel that they're being sermonized. It's a fine line, but one that didn't need to be so obviously crossed, particularly when other films, such as "Finding Nemo" get the same sort of message across without feeling as if they're pontificating.

The second "problem" is that the film follows the Disney animated playbook formula so closely that adults (and some kids) are likely to experience the "been there, seen that before" reaction. It's not horrible and there are some original moments, but much of the film can't shake that recycled feeling.

Vocal work is fine, with Joaquin Phoenix ("Signs," "Gladiator") and Jeremy Suarez ("Treasure Planet," "Jerry Maguire") decently voicing their respective lead parts. Jason Raize (making his feature debut) and D.B. Sweeney ("Hard Ball," "Dinosaur") provide the voices of the brothers and Michael Clarke Duncan's ("Daredevil," "The Green Mile") voice up in the third act for a (not surprisingly) large bear.

It's Rick Moranis ("Big Bully," the "Ghostbusters" films) and Dave Thomas ("Rat Race," "MVP: Most Valuable Primate"), however, who steal in the spotlight with their comic relief characters. It appears that the film must be set in or near Canada as the infamous McKenzie brothers (of SCTV fame, eh?) seem to have followed a similar spirit transformation and have become two laidback moose. There's nothing fall down funny in regards to their dialog or delivery (although a game of "I Spy" is rather amusing), but they accomplish their goal.

Some of which is obviously to rekindle Disney's glory days of animated features when such characters became childhood favorites and helped pushed the movies they were in to new heights. While this effort looks quite good from an animation standpoint, it's quite likely it could be the last time a computer isn't spitting out the entire product.

Decent and fairly entertaining and engrossing for kids, "Brother Bear" clearly isn't horrible, but if this is the last hand-drawn animated feature, the genre is going out on a less than fabulous note. The film rates as a 5 out of 10.

Reviewed October 25, 2003 / Posted November 1, 2003

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