Saturday, April 17, 2004

Brother Bear is barely bearable--oh, brother!
Review by Sombrero Grande

It’s hard to believe that just 10 years ago we were in the midst of a new golden age of Disney animation. The Little Mermaid. Beauty and the Beast. Aladdin. The Lion King. Every animated feature the Disney studio cranked out was better than the one before. Then something happened. After The Lion King became one of the highest grossing movies of all time in 1994, the Big Cheese at the Mouse House got restless. Motivated by what must be an insatiable greed, Michael Eisner issued forth a declaration that now the Disney Company wouldn’t be striving for one new animated feature each year but TWO. If these movies were making so much money then why not double the profits by doubling the amount of product? What could be simpler?

Back then I knew what ol’ Mikey couldn’t see--that he was going to kill Disney Feature Animation, overwork the dream machine until it cracked and ran into the ground.

Now what most people don’t realize about animation is how much time it takes to do. There’s a joke in an episode of The Simpsons where Homer, providing a voice for a new character on the Itchy and Scratchy cartoon show, asks where the animators are during a recording session. The veteran voice actor working with him replies that cartoons aren’t done “live” because it’s a horrible strain on the animators’ wrists. It actually takes about on average five years to get a classically animated feature film completed, so the implications of Eisner’s “doubling up” wouldn’t fully be evident until around the turn of the century. While the Disney animated features slowly declined in the late ‘90s (Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Hercules) it wasn’t until 2000, almost exactly five years after Eisner’s proclamation, that the effects of overworking the dream machine really started to show. Dinosaur. Atlantis: The Lost Empire. Treasure Planet. Brother Bear.

Brother Bear feels like a very tired film. The sparkling life that once illuminated and separated Disney’s animation from any competitor is dimmed. All the elements are there--the paint, the animation, the music, the cute characters, even the familiar story twists and lessons--but they feel hollow. The products of a tired, overworked machine still contain the same elements but show obvious signs of wear and more noticeable imperfections.

Perhaps the story elements are too familiar. It feels as though in their push to develop a story to fill a biannual slot, Disney cannibalized pieces of their past work to create Brother Bear. While watching the film I kept feeling like I was experiencing flashbacks to The Lion King, Pocahontas, Mulan, Beauty and the Beast, Lilo and Stitch, The Jungle Book and several others, not just from the story but from the characters and design as well. Even the two comic relief characters, a pair of moose voiced by Dave Thomas and Rick Moranis, seem to be little more than their characters recycled from Strange Brew just now with antlers added.

But it’s not just the familiar territory that weakens Brother Bear, it’s the fact that there’s very little--if any--well-handled emotion in the film. Characters die, but where’s the emotional impact akin to losing Mufasa or Bambi’s mom? The fumbled impact of the characters can perhaps be most aptly summed up by the fact that I cannot even recall the main characters’ names (with the exception of Koda the cub, who I remember only because he continually repeats his name in the film).

Also the sense of place in the film is confusing. The environment is similar to that of a California national park (perhaps in an attempt to tie the film into Disney’s flailing California Adventure theme park), but the variety of landscapes that the characters encounter (glaciers, arid plains, various types of forests, rivers and mountains) seems far too varied for the small area the film’s story would have us believe we should be seeing. There’re wooly mammoths in a few scenes and sabre-toothed tigers are mentioned, so I guess we’re dealing with a very early time period, though that’s never really developed. The “northern lights” play an important role in the film, but, again, aren’t those in Alaska? As if all this wasn't confusing enough, then there are two distinctly Canadian moose and a very random Russian bear that show up. How the Hell a Russian-speaking bear ended up in this northern Californian landscape mish-mash I’ll never know. In one of the bonus features on the DVD the filmmakers say that they liked the idea that since there are all kinds of people from different places around today that there should be animals from different places in the film. Yes, but the reason WHY there are people from different places inhabiting, say, California today is because of things like travel, airplanes, boats, international trade, etc. So, again, how the Hell did one, lone Russian-speaking bear randomly end up in this prehistoric conglomeration of the Pacific Northwestern U.S.?

It’s this kind of lack of thought that hampers another aspect of the film, something that I almost never discuss in my reviews: the DVD itself. I watched the widescreen version of the film (I have no desire to go back and rewatch it in full-screen) and never before has “letterboxing” ever bothered me, but here it did. Now, Mil Peliculas is a staunch letterboxing defender who will smack down any dissidents with their bogus complaints that the black bars are “distracting”--but, Mil, you’ve never seen the widescreen treatment that’s been given to Brother Bear. The film was presented theatrically with two different aspect ratios--that’s two different “screen sizes” to the layperson--and begins with an aspect ratio closer to a box shape akin to a TV screen. But after the main character is transformed into a bear, the screen widens significantly to show that he’s now seeing the world differently through another’s eyes. It’s a somewhat clever use of the screen which I can only image must have been neat to see in a theater, but the treatment on the DVD is a horribly botched job. You’d think it’d be a matter of simple common sense to try to fill the screen with as much imagery as possible, especially when the subject matter is rich, lush Disney animation. But no. Instead, the screen for the first “act” of Brother Bear is actually shrunken down with significant black bars running ALL THE WAY AROUND THE PICTURE! If you’ve ever seen trailers for IMAX films that begin with a tiny TV-shaped image in the center of the screen, imagine watching THAT for about 20 minutes or so before the screen finally opens up to its full potential. I can see that the effect the DVD producers were trying to achieve by handling the widescreen in this manner was to elicit an “ooh” and “aah” response from viewers once the true widescreen kicks in, but it had me thinking, “it’s about f**king time!” I couldn’t wait for the screen to finally open up. Maybe if I hadn’t been so distracted, waiting anxiously for the main character to finally change into a bear so that the movie could “start” and the screen could reach “normal” letterbox format, I might have become more engrossed in the relationship of the three brothers which is essential to the story. Maybe I could have appreciated the art and animation more. Maybe the film wouldn’t have gotten off to such a bad start in my mind. My Dr. Strangelove DVD has different aspect ratios throughout the film, but since each one is formatted to utilize the maximum amount of the TV screen at all times I never even consciously notice the change.

I never thought I’d find myself saying this, but maybe it IS time to close down Disney’s animation division. The products the tired dream factory has been spitting out as of late are nothing to be too proud of, especially when you consider that only 10 years ago this is the same studio that was producing The Lion King. The quality of Disney’s Feature Animation products has just about reached the lowly state of the company’s direct-to-video fare. So maybe it is time to pack up the drawing boards, put down the pencils and wait for a time when a new visionary leader without all the greed of a Disney villain will arise to make Disney animated films worth seeing again.


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