“Brother Bear” is a very mild animated entry from Disney with a distinctly recycled feel. This third production from Disney’s Florida Animation Studio (after the far superior “Mulan” and “Lilo & Stitch”) mixes the indigenous warrior formats of the likes of “Mulan” and “Pocahontas” with the coming of age and circle of life quasi-mystical elements of “The Lion King,” to underwhelming effect. Opening exclusively in New York and Los Angeles on Oct. 24 before rolling out into wide release a week later, G-rated pic is the only purely animated major studio attraction for the rest of the year and as such has an automatic audience among families with little kids. But its lack of edge and excitement will soon put “Brother Bear” deeply in the shadows of its true competitors for youthful coin running up to the holidays — “Elf,” the part-animated “Looney Tunes: Back in Action” and “Dr. Seuss’ The Cat in the Hat.”
Originally conceived as a reworking of “King Lear,” according to the press notes, project morphed into a story of three Native American brothers in distant pre-Columbian times, one of whom transforms into a bear in a world dominated by nature-based myths and hunting rituals. Notable for its colorful animation, particularly of the scenic backgrounds, reasonably catchy Phil Collins songs, and a bit of stylistic adventurousness — reminiscent of what Robert Redford did in “The Horse Whisperer,” the screen expands from the conventional 1.85-to-1 aspect ratio to widescreen with the ursine transformation 24 minutes in — the film’s characters and narrative simply fail to engage strong interest, and tale is probably too resolutely serious to enchant small fry in the way the better Disney titles always have.
Bookending the action with refs to cave painting and the heritage of verbal storytelling was a good idea perhaps not carried far enough; spinning off some modern animation in the style of prehistoric art could have yielded some exciting results. Instead, opening stretch is dedicated to establishing the spirited bonhomie among three brothers in what looks like the Pacific Northwest. At the outset, youngest brother Kenai is disappointed over the totem he has received to commemorate his arrival at manhood: a carved wooden bear symbolic of love, which he regards as vastly inferior to the eagle totem worn by oldest and boldest brother Sitka.
When a bear makes off with a basket of fish, the reckless Kenai starts a senseless pursuit that ends with Sitka sacrificing himself to take the bear down and save his brother. Unfortunately, the bear survives, whereupon Kenai once again ignores his elders in order to exact vengeance. When he succeeds, the Northern Lights elaborately descend from the heavens and turn Kenai into a bear. But this makes the clan’s middle brother, Denahi, think that Kenai, too, is dead, and he sets out on an epic hunt to track down the killer bear.
At this point, not only does the screen expand, but the colors grow resplendently rich with colors, animals can talk to one another (although not with humans) and comedy relief is introduced, in the fractious form of two bickering moose, Rutt and Tuke. When the antler butting is over with and the lameness of the routines voiced by Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas asserts itself, one senses that the whole enterprise is in trouble, as indeed it is.
From a headstrong young man, Kenai has now become Scaredy Bear, a kissing cousin to the Cowardly Lion who barely knows how to cope. Advised by the tribal shaman to look for Sitka’s spirit on an unidentified mountain top, Kenai soon gets guidance from a feisty bear cub named Koda, who has lost its mother but hopes to find her at the big salmon run on the same mountain. Grudgingly, Kenai takes Koda under his wing and survives the onset of winter and the pursuit by Denahi en route to a form of ultimate enlightenment, which as presented feels pro forma and unearned.
Although the animation is handsome, detailed and occasionally dramatic, the visuals lack the surprise and whimsical elements that made the division’s last effort, “Lilo & Stitch,” so disarming. The mystical invocations seem arbitrary rather than organic, the righteous native characters feel rote and unvaried after similar previous incarnations, and strictly contempo American dialogue usages such as “dude” and “bring it on” come off as grating and pandering. While the six Collins tunes echo with reverberations of Disney epics past — a sequence of the two bears setting off on their journey astride some lumbering mastodons to the accompaniment of “On My Way” positively shivers with “Lion King” vibes — their percussive qualities are still appealing and mark a nice break from the generally uninspired dialogue.
Voicings are fine if unremarkable, with Joaquin Phoenix energetically handling the lead.