Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Chicken Little (2005) - He's the Greatest Dancer in this Disney Movie!

Chicken Little: A Fun Little Disney Movie with the Legendary Don Knotts

Many people are familiar with the "Cola Wars" of the 1980s, when Pepsi challenged Coke's supremacy and Coke famously "blinked." Less well known is that the same thing happened in the 2000s in the context of Disney and its rivals. The result basically was the same in both cases - Coke and Disney both remained "on top," depending on how you choose to define that term. Coke went back to its original formula and retained its market share, while Disney eventually bought out its biggest competitor, Pixar.

Chicken Little Ugly Duckling
Chicken Little and Ugly Duckling

The source of Disney's troubles was Pixar's (and eventually DreamWorks' and others) continuing perfection of computer graphics. Audiences liked the slick new animation styles being peddled by the upstart animation companies and no longer seemed as excited about Disney's combination of computer imagery and traditional hand-drawn animation. Walt Disney Feature Animation's solution was to lay off its animators and try doing what the others were doing.

"Chicken Little" (2005), directed by Mark Dindal from a script by , was Disney's first fully computer-animated feature film, and it showed the studio still had some work to do to win back its audiences of the 1990s.

Chicken Little 2005
Chicken Little, he's the greatest dancer!

Chicken Little (Zach Braff) lives in Oakey Oaks. He wildly rings the school bell one day, telling people to run for their lives. Everyone panics, but when Chicken Little finally tells everyone that the reason for alerting them was that a piece of the sky had fallen on him, they all just laughed at him. Chicken Little's father, Buck Cluck, dismisses Chicken Little's fears as being caused simply by an acorn that had fallen on him. The town decides that Chicken Little is crazy and ignores him.

Chicken Little playing baseball Chicken Little 2005
Chicken Little is ready to go
A year later, Chicken Little's only remaining friends are fellow outcasts like Abby Mallard (Joan Cusack), who has a crush on Chicken Little, Runt of the Litter (Steve Zahn) and Fish Out of Water (Dan Molina), who wears a helmet full of tap water. Chicken Little wants Buck Cluck to be proud of him, so he joins a baseball team. The coach ignores Chicken Little until the last inning of the last game, when the coach finally calls him to bat. Chicken Little hits the ball and rounds the bases, barely making it home after some confusion. For winning the big game, Chicken Little becomes a hero.

Don Knotts Turkey Lurkey Chicken Little 2005
Don Knotts plays Mayor Turkey Lurkey

Later that night, though, Chicken Little is hit in the head again. He discovers that it not the sky that hit him, though, but something else that he does not recognize which blends into the background. Chicken Little's friend Fish Out of Water fools around with the piece and pushes a button on its back. It turns out to be a hexagon that flies off into the sky and was hiding a UFO. Once again, Chicken Little rings the school bell to warn the town, but the aliens quickly leave. Nobody believes Chicken Little, and once again he becomes a figure of fun.

Joan Cusack Ugly Duckling Chicken Little 2005
Ugly Duckling "is the babe"

The next day, though, Chicken Little and his friends discover an orange alien child that the aliens left behind. The aliens return in a fleet of spaceships, looking for the lost child. They destroy the town with their ray guns. Chicken Little finds his father and manages to show that he is not crazy, and that he can stop the aliens. Buck helps fight the aliens, but they all get vaporized, which actually sends them into the alien space ship. Once they get the child back, the aliens restore everything to normal, and Chicken Little again becomes a hero for averting a catastrophe.

Ugly Duckling, Chicken Little, Fish out of Water Chicken Little 2005
Chicken Little, Fish out of Water and Ugly Duckling

The voice cast of "Chicken Little" is chock full of old and new television comedy veterans. Don Knotts, who had been an animation pioneer 40 years earlier as Henry Limpet in "The Incredible Mr. Limpet," voices the Mayor of Oakey Oaks, Turkey Lurkey. Garry Marshall plays Buck with his usual comic flair. Fred Willard, Wallace Shawn, and Amy Sedaris are well-known comics who round out the cast. Having such amiable actors portraying the characters in this fable was a wise move, making the rote script come alive and enhancing the amusement of "Chicken Little" by letting the audience reconnect with old friends once more time. This was one of Don Knotts' final films, and he is his usual amusing self as the mayor.

Chicken little and alien baby Chicken Little 2005
Chicken Little and the orange alien baby

While this was a feature animated Disney movie, with a top-notch voice cast and all the trimmings, in essence it was the equivalent of a small, experimental Disney movie. Trying to unshackle itself from dependence on Pixar, this Disney movie has a good technical animation presentation but is completely lacking in its story. Everyone knows what a "chicken little" is, as it is a catchphrase for an alarmist, and this Disney movie did not expand on that concept at all. It has a lot of bright colors and constant chaos, with amusing dialogue and the types of one-liners you would expect from the cast of comedy pros. The father-son relationship is emphasized, which you also would expect in a Disney movie and is in line with Disney's efforts at the time to win over boys. All of this makes "Chicken Little" a very suitable film for small children. Anyone else, though is likely to be only mildly amused at hearing Don Knotts one more time, before quickly growing tired of the succession of clichés and paint-by-numbers plot turns.

Ugly Duckling Chicken Little Chicken Little 2005
Ugly Duckling and Chicken Little watching the sky

The soundtrack is fairly idiosyncratic, including numbers by Barenaked Ladies, Spice Girls, Joss Stone and Patti LaBelle, and R.E.M. John Debney did the score, which is okay. Perhaps the most amusing aspect of "Chicken Little" for older audiences is the parade of cultural references that the animators include to spice things up a bit. The false opening parodies "The Lion King," and there are nods to "Raiders of the Lost Ark," "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial," "Independence Day" and "War of the Worlds."

Chicken Little Chicken Little 2005
Chicken Little always the center of attention

If you are watching "Chicken Little" with your child, you might be able to stop your mind from drifting off by catching the numerous throw-away references - some fairly subtle - to high-profile television shows and films like "90210" and Ridley Scott's "Alien."

Chicken Little with microphones Chicken Little 2005
Chicken Little with reporters after saving everyone

Overall, "Chicken Little" is a sweet, inoffensive film for little children. There are DVD, Blu-ray and 3D Blu-ray versions available. Perhaps the most lasting impact of "Chicken Little" is that its mere production showed Pixar that Disney meant to compete in the computer-animation field, thereby perhaps nudging it toward accepting Pixar's takeover by Disney shortly after this film's release. Disney, on the other hand, saw by "Chicken Little's" problems that it might be able to learn a thing or two from its young rival. Disney blinked, all right, but then it opened its big, wide, toothy jaw and swallowed its main competitor whole. Hey, that would make a good animation scene....

Below is the trailer for "Chicken Little."


Thursday, January 24, 2013

Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World (1998) - Moving on from John Smith

Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World - A New Land and a New Love

Pocahantas 2 Disney dvd

In Walt Disney Feature Animation's original "Pocahontas," Captain John Smith befriended the young Native-American Pocahontas, a chief's daughter, and they fell in love. Loosely based on real-life events, Walt Disney Pictures' direct-to-video "Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World" (1998) continues the story of "Pocahontas" right up to the end of the real story - but more on that later. Almost all of the voice actors return from "Pocahontas," with the critical exception of Mel Gibson as John Smith, who now is voiced by Mel's brother Donal Gibson. Smith is not the central male figure in this continuation anyway, as Pocahontas engages on adventures of her own.

DVD cover Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World 1998
The storybook
Both "Pocahontas" and "Pocahontas II" take tremendous liberties with the facts, which is upsetting to some people who expect a more respectful stance. Disney animated feature films, of course, never have been likened to documentaries, but it strays especially far in "Pocahontas II." However, before we dig deeper into the actual story of Pocahontas, rest assured that watching the two movies is a fairly seamless experience. It should excite interest in the real story among younger viewers. Just be aware that there is a staggering quality difference between the two films, with the first being a classic and the second, well, not so much.

Pocahontas John Smith in a canoe Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World 1998
Pocahontas, Meeko and John Smith

Picking right up where we left off in "Pocahontas," Governor Ratcliffe (David Ogden Stiers) obtains a warrant for the arrest of John Smith from Ratcliffe's friend King James by underhanded means. John Smith is arrested, and everyone is told that he is dead. Wishing to avoid issues with the Powhatan Nation, the King sends diplomat John Rolfe (Billy Zane) to Virginia to smooth things over with Pocahontas' father, Chief Powhatan (Russell Means). The King wants Rolfe to bring the chief back to England for discussions. Pocahontas (Irene Bedard) is sad about Smith's death, but she comes to terms with his passing. Rolfe arrives and tries to take charge of matters, which irks Pocahontas, who is a free spirit and feels everything is under control already.

John Rolfe Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World 1998
John Rolfe

Rolfe doesn't know the name of Chief Powhatan and mistakenly comes to believe that his name is "Pocahontas." At a dance that night, Rolfe brings a gift of a horse for "The Mighty Pocahontas." When he sees who Pocahontas is, Rolfe is embarrassed. He finds the real chief and asks him to come to England, but the chief refuses. Pocahontas, wishing to avoid a war, volunteers to go in her father's place. After some timely advice from spiritual tree Grandmother Willow (Linda Hunt), Pocahontas sets off with Rolfe for England. Pocahontas' animal friends racoon Meeko (John Kassir), hummingbird Flit (Frank Welker) and pet dog Percy (Danny Mann) stow away. The ship's captain, unclear as to what is happening, tries to arrest Pocahontas as a stowaway herself, but Rolfe protects her, softening her feelings towards him somewhat.

Pocahontas with Flit and Meeko Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World 1998
Pocahontas with her animal friends

Upon arriving in England, Rolfe learns that Ratcliffe has convinced his buddy the King to send an invasion force to Virginia if things do not go smoothly. Rolfe then takes Pocahontas to his estate outside of London, where his housekeeper Mrs. Jenkings (Jean Stapleton) treats Pocahontas with kindness. The King invites Pocahontas and Rolfe to The Hunt Ball, where it is understood that if Pocahontas acts improperly, the invasion force will sail for Virginia. Pocahontas gladly accepts the challenge and dresses up in the English style, a hoop dress and high heels. Taking the event seriously, Pocahontas learns English manners from Rolfe, and he teaches Pocahontas how to dance. Pocahontas even replaces her mother's necklace with an English one.

London England Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World 1998
Medieval London, England

At the ball, Pocahontas flatters the King and gets along well with the Queen (Finola Hughes). Ratcliffe, though, is determined to have her make a poor impression so that he can invade Virginia, so he arranges a bear-baiting. Pocahontas gets upset and berates the King and others for laughing at the bear's mistreatment. The King in turn gets upset at Pocahontas and, at Ratcliffe's suggestion, arrests her and her bodyguard Uttamatomakkin (Brad Garrett) with the intention of executing them. Rolfe, desperate, encounters a hooded stranger who succeeds in breaking Pocahontas and her bodyguard out of prison. When safe in the woods, the hooded stranger reveals himself as none other than John Smith. It turns out that both Smith and Rolfe have feelings for Pocahontas.

King James of England Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World 1998
King James

Pocahontas returns to her normal look and visits the Queen, explaining what happened. John Smith then appears and convinces the King that Ratcliffe lied about gold being in Virginia, the reason for an invasion fleet thus being negated. Smith, Rolfe and Uttamatomakkin then rush to stop the invasion fleet, captained by Ratcliffe, from sailing. Arriving at the last moment, the three manage to throw the sailors overboard and then crash the ships together. Ratcliffe fights a duel against Smith and loses, but then draws a pistol. Rolfe and Pocahontas capture Ratcliffe, who then is arrested by King James on shore.

Pocahontas II Blu ray
The Blu-ray disc

With her mission at an end, Pocahontas decides to leave for home. Rolfe and Pocahontas come close to admitting they like each other, but Smith butts in and says that he wants to be with Pocahontas instead. Rolfe leaves, and Pocahontas breaks up with Smith. Then Smith leaves, and the ship sails, with Rolfe nowhere to be seen. As the ship sails off, Rolfe appears on deck as a stowaway, and he and Pocahontas kiss as the ship sails into the sunset.

Pocahontas dressed up Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World 1998
Pocahontas in her ballroom attire

The plot of "Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World" is so far from real events that anyone familiar with the real events may have difficulty watching it. Ratcliffe was not involved with Pocahontas at all, and, in fact, was long dead by the time that Pocahontas ever sailed for England. There was no invasion fleet, no motivation of invading to find gold, and Rolfe's entire relationship with Pocahontas (they were married) occurred prior to and during the stay in England. That Pocahontas died suddenly and mysteriously right at the point that "Pocahontas II" ends is perhaps the oddest relationship between film and real life of all.

Pocahontas dancing with John Rolfe Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World 1998
Pocahontas and Ratcliffe dancing

The almost universal reaction to "Pocahontas II" is one of disappointment. The animation is inferior to the original, with faces that are far less expressive. In fact, if Rolfe and Smith did not have different-colored hair, it would be difficult to tell them apart. The (fictional) story is weak and melodramatic, and the songs by Marty Panzer and Larry Grossman would have been better off left out (though "Things are Not what they Appear" is fairly tuneful).

Ratcliffe in chains Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World 1998
Governor... former Governor Ratcliffe

All that is minor, though, compared to the travesty of the story line. If Disney wished to completely fabricate events in a real person's life, why not at least complete the set-up from the original "Pocahontas" and have her wind up with Smith? Of course, she married Rolfe in real life, but only because Smith left and (yes, the film is correct on this) everyone thought him dead. One may argue that there was nothing between Smith and Pocahontas in the first place, but if you spend an entire film establishing a deep and abiding live, carelessly brushing that off in the final five minutes of a sequel makes absolutely no sense. This is the rare Disney movie with a supposedly happy ending that, in fact, is quite unhappy for many viewers. One can make the argument that "Pocahontas II" ruins all the good feelings engendered in "Pocahontas," which, for all its faults, lay a lot closer to historical truth than "Pocahontas II."

Pocahontas, Ratcliffe, Smith Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World 1998
The romantic triangle

"Pocahontas II" was a tragic mistake on Disney's part. It is no wonder that Disney stopped making direct-to-video sequels to its feature animated films a few years later. Having directors Tom Ellery and Bradley Raymond end the sequel with Pocahontas breaking up with her big lover from "Pocahontas" just leaves you gaping at the screen in frustration, especially since Rolfe is so unimpressive. Even little kids who see "Pocahontas" likely will be disappointed.

Pocahontas Rolfe Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World 1998
A fantasy moment

Underlying the other problems is that there is very little chemistry between Pocahontas and Rolfe. In an odd way, Rolfe is almost made to appear unlikeable throughout "Pocahontas II." It is as if the screenwriters Allen Estrin, Cindy Marcus and Flip Kobler were unclear until the end themselves how they wished to end "Pocahontas II," then flipped a coin and decided to have Pocahontas wind up with her real-life husband rather than her "boyfriend" from the first film. There also was little humor, as the sidekicks Meeko, Percy and Flit seem "just along for the ride" in more ways than one. Pocahontas turns from being a sweet lover of the forest into an insistent peace activist who never seems happy, which never was the case in real life and robs her in "Pocahontas II" of having any meaningful relationship with anyone. In essence, Pocahontas II takes the American Princess out of her element and makes her appear awkward.

Shakespeare Pocahontas 2
The Immortal Bard has a cameo appearance in "Pocahontas II"

It is amusing how Disney could change the ending of "The Little Mermaid" in an uplifting fashion to make it satisfying, but with "Pocahontas II," Disney changes everything about the ending of the real story except for the one thing that makes the ending unsatisfying - namely, who Pocahontas ends up with. On the positive side, there is more action in "Pocahontas II" and Ratcliffe is more central to the story as a creepy villain. It also is fun seeing Pocahontas doing different things, as long as you don't dwell too long on what those things are, because what she does simply isn't that interesting. "Pocahontas II" may be useful for showing kids that life doesn't always turn out the way that you expect or want, but that's kind of a downbeat lesson for an animated film.

Blu ray package Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World 1998
The Blu-ray package has nice extra features

The two-disc, two-movie blu-ray set does have an interesting documentary on the Disney project "Hiawatha" and how that directly influenced the genesis of "Pocahontas" and "Pocahontas II." "Pocahontas II" really isn't any worse than your average animated television series show, but it is only recommended for die-hard fans of the first film who just want to see more of the real American princess and aren't too demanding about things like plot and character development.

Below is the ball-room scene from "Pocahontas II: Journey to the New World."


Monday, January 21, 2013

Home on the Range (2004) - Roseanne Plays a Cow

Home on the Range: Roseanne Barr versus Randy Quaid

"Home on the Range" (2004), directed by Will Finn and John Sanford for Walt Disney Feature Animation, is a hand-drawn animation feature (using the CAPS computer process) which came out during string of Disney film disappointments at the box office. The animation field had completely changed over the previous decade, and Disney movies were having trouble keeping pace. "Home on the Range" is pleasant enough, but it couldn't complete with the new franchise films and solo hits that year from other studios like "Ice Age," "Shrek 2" and "The Incredibles." Despite being headlined by popular television comedienne Roseanne Barr, "Home on the Range" got lost in the shuffle among all those classic hits and never found its audience. As a comedy, the laughs are relatively few, but undemanding viewers may enjoy the notion of talking cows plotting revenge against a cattle rustler.
Maggie's udders Home on the Range 2004
Maggie confronts a visitor
Cattle rustler Alameda Slim (Randy Quaid) raids the Dixon ranch, getting every cow except Maggie (Barr). Mr. Dixon sells Maggie to Pearl (Carole Cook), a sweet older lady who runs the "Patch of Heaven" farm. Sheriff Sam, though, soon arrives and warns her that the local bank that holds the mortgage on her property is threatening to foreclose. Pearl has three days to come up with $750, or he will have to sell the farm. Maggie convinces her fellow cows Grace (Jennifer Tilly) and Mrs. Calloway (Judi Dench) to help Pearl find the money so that she can save her farm.
Pearl's farm Home on the Range 2004
Maggie and friends leaving A Patch of Heaven
The trio heads to town to see if they can win prize money at a fair. While there, Rico the bounty hunter (Charles Dennis) stops at the sheriff's office and drops off a fugitive, collecting the reward. He needs a rested horse, so he obtains the sheriff's horse, Buck (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) and prepares to track down Alameda Slim as his next project. Hearing about this, Maggie tells her friends that they can save the farm if they can just track Slim down for the $750 reward.
Maggie, Grace and Mrs. Calloway Home on the Range 2004
Maggie and friends
Going undercover among a large herd of steer, Maggie and her friends wait for Slim. He appears, and promptly starts a yodelling song that puts all of the animals into a trance except for Grace, who is tone deaf. Grace snaps her two friends out of their trances, and the three watch as Slim creates a rockslide that prevents Rico or anyone else from following him and his stolen steer.
Rico, Buck and the Sheriff Home on the Range 2004
The sheriff doesn't look very intimidating
Maggie and the others find Rico and start talking to his horse, Buck, who is an old friend. Buck gets carried away telling an old story and starts acting out past events, making Rico mistakenly believe that Buck is afraid of cows. Rico, who needs a horse who is comfortable around cattle, takes Buck back to the sheriff, but Buck, determined to prove his worth, escapes. Maggie and her group, meanwhile, find a peg-legged rabbit named Lucky Jack (Charles Haid) who leads them to Slim's hideout, an abandoned mine.
Rico and Buck Home on the Range 2004
Rico has come for his bounty
Slim then reveals his sinister master plan: he steals cattle from people he knows, then uses the money he gets from selling the animals to buy the properties when they are auctioned off. When buying land he goes under the alias "Mr. O'Delay." Maggie and her friends promptly capture Slim, but Slim's gang and a buyer chase them onto a steam train. Rico arrives, but it turns out that he works for Slim. Slim escapes and heads off to the auction as Mr. O'Delay, but Maggie and friends drive the train to the farm and confront Slim in front of everyone.
Maggie, Buck, Rusty, Mrs. Calloway, Grace Home on the Range 2004
Maggie and friends planning their next move
The animation process for "Home on the Range" was well-developed by this point, having been introduced in "The Rescuers Down Under" and used for well over decade in hits like "Tarzan." Other studios like Pixar, though, were moving past this creaking technology, so "Home on the Range" was the last film for a while which used traditional animation at all. Some complain that the animation in "Home on the Range" is garish, but others think that the visuals are a high point of "Home on the Range." It certainly is full of color and multiplane effects that give the scenery a somewhat flat look, but with great background detail. The 2D animation is of high quality, it just isn't to everyone's taste.
Alameda Slim Home on the Range 2004
The colors in "Home on the Range" are very vivid
A bigger problem with "Home on the Range" is the script by directors . The year 2004 was a high point in animation due to the large number of high-concept films released that year, and "Home on the Range" has a very simple story that could have been told equally well in the 19th Century. In that sense, it is similar to the failed "Treasure Planet," whose story actually was adapted from a story of that time. Character development in "Home on the Range" is thin, as there is an entire farm full of characters who each need a little time to make their appearance and give their background.
DVD cover Home on the Range 2004
Not a very impressive DVD cover

"Home on the Range" might, even then, have worked as a children's Disney movie, but there is an element of crudeness that seeps through "Home on the Range" that probably stems from Roseanne's uniquely confrontational form of comedy. The film opens with shot of Maggie's udders, who then says somewhat salaciously (for a kid's Disney movie), "Yes, they're real, quit staring," which must make no sense at all to anyone below the age of about eight.
Maggie and friends Home on the Range 2004
I've never seen a sky quite that color before
Alan Menken, who hit his high point in his collaborations with the late Howard Ashman, is around to provide the score, which is perfectly adequate but certainly not in the league of, say, his classic "Beauty and the Beast" numbers. Country singers k.d. lang and Bonnie Raitt sing a couple of country songs, but there isn't anything that is going to send you home snapping your fingers, and the characters themselves don't sing anything as used to be the norm. When you combine the relatively weak score with the weak slapstick, the thin plot and the debatable animation, there really isn't much of a draw to "Home on the Range" beyond crude jokes.
barn animals Home on the Range 2004
All of the animals posed for a group shot
There are some nice moments in "Home on the Range," as in any Disney movie. Alameda has three dim-witted nephews who provide some light comic relief, but there big-name comedians in "Home on the Range" who should be doing that. There is a lot of what can best be described as mordant barnyard humor:

“Jeb: Well, I think we all know what happens now!
Mrs. Calloway: Jeb, don’t start!
Jeb: Now we all get eaten!
Mrs. Calloway: Jeb!
Audrey: But who would eat a chicken?”
The fundamental issue with crafting an animated film like "Home on the Range" that appears solidly targeted at a specific demographic (here, Middle America) is that, because the tale is not organic to the storytellers or the process, the plot becomes formulaic and relies on stereotypes (you don't get any more trite than a "helping the widow save her farm" plot). Slim is the standard dastardly villain, Buck is the standard eager young hero desperate to prove himself, and so on. You might expect this Disney movie to suddenly shake off the corn and reveal itself as some sort of arch parody or satire - but it doesn't. If you like Roseanne's brand of comedy, though, this is a good film to see, because she gets off her share of acid-tongued one-liners that are, as usual, delivered with great timing.
Alameda Slim Home on the Range 2004
Randy Quaid is great as the dastardly Slim
If you are looking for an animated Western and already have seen "An American Tail: Fievel Goes West," you might want to try "Home on the Range." It will help a lot for your enjoyment, though, if you are a fan of the leads, who all have distinctive personalities that some find amusing and others, well, don't.

Below is the trailer for "Home on the Range."


Sunday, January 20, 2013

Brother Bear (2003) - Nice Lessons from this Disney Movie About Acting Responsibly

Brother Bear: Nature is Calling

Brother Bear 2003

During the Disney Renaissance that stretched from "The Little Mermaid" to "Tarzan," Walt Disney Feature Animation maintained an upbeat, positive tone in almost all of its Disney movies. If characters weren't singing positive tunes, they were cracking jokes or getting even with someone who had wronged them. When you left the theater, you were either marvelling at how funny or moving Robin Williams or James Woods or Jason Alexander had been, or you were humming classic tunes composed by Howard Ashman or Alan Menken. It was a happy time for Disney animated feature films, and you weren't called upon to do any more thinking than was absolutely necessary. However, the making of Renaissance classic "Pocahontas" ruffled some feathers in the Native-American community.

Brother Bear 2003

Well, Disney makes amends for "Pocahontas" with "Brother Bear" (2003), helmed by first-time feature directors Aaron Blaise and Robert Walker. "Brother Bear" does have its lighter moments, and it is hardly a documentary on Native American life. However, it is a serious film (though it definitely has some humor) that ponders deep issues. What "Brother Bear" does have is an admirable message about acting responsibly towards the world in which we live. It is one of the lower-key animated Disney movies from the Post-Renaissance era and today is largely forgotten, but definitely remains worthwhile for the right audience. The decline of Disney movies from the heights of the 1990s was becoming obvious by this point, but "Brother Bear" still possesses a thoughtful charm about it that many of the lighter-themed, more popular Disney movies lack.

Kenai, Denahi, Sitka Brother Bear 2003
"And for our next song...."

It is North America some time shortly after the last ice age. Three brothers, Kenai (Joaquin Phoenix), Denahi (Jason Raize) and Sitka (D.B. Sweeney), are preparing for the sacred ceremony in which Kenai becomes a man. It is time for Kenai to receive his sacred totem, which turns out to be a bear of love. This means that in order to become a man within the tribe, Kenai must prove that he can live his life with love, and all that love implies. Kenai is upset, desiring something more heroic, and believing that all bears are thieves. It turns out to be the perfect totem, though for Kenai has a lot to learn about love, bears and everything else in the wild.

The brothers kayaking Brother Bear 2003
Disney sure knows how to make living in a frozen Hell look like fun

Somwhat ironically, a bear then steals some salmon from the tribe. The three brothers pursue the offending bear onto a glacier. During a battle against the bear, Sitka sacrifices his life to save his brothers. The bear survives and escapes, and Kenai makes it his mission to hunt the bear down and kill it despite his remaining brother's belief that the bear was not at fault. Kenai tracks the bear up to a mountain lake and needlessly kills it. Sitka, now a powerful spirit in the form of a bald eagle, watches all this and decides that Kenai needs to learn a lesson (apparently the totem wasn't enough), so he turns Kenai into a bear. This way, Kenai can atone for his wrongdoing and understand the bear's point of view. Denahi, meanwhile, now thinks that the bear (inhabited by Kenai) has killed both of his brothers, so he vows to track the bear now inhabited by Kenai down and kill it, just as Kenai did (perhaps Denahi needs a lesson, too?).

Kenai in human form Brother Bear 2003
"Bears are nothing but thieves."

Kenai, in the bear form, gets caught in a raging river and swept down through some rapids. Tanana (Joan Copeland), the shaman of Kenai's tribe, who somehow knows what is going on, heals Kenai, then advises Kenai to go back up into the mountains to find Sitka and admit that he was wrong for killing the bear. Tanana then disappears, and Kenai sets off on his new mission to find Sitka.

Film poster Brother Bear 2003
I get cold just looking at this poster!

In his new form, Kenai discovers that he can understand the speech of the wildlife around him. Kenai soon meets two brother moose, Rutt and Tuke (Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas, reprising their roles as the comic Canadian Mckenzie brothers). Proceeding on his way, Kenai gets caught in a trap but is freed by a chatty bear cub named Koda (Jeremy Suarez). Kenai agrees to go with Koda to a nearby salmon run, after which Koda promises to take Kenai back to the mountain.

Koda Kenai Brother Bear 2003
"Are you trying to be annoying?"

Denahi still is hunting Kenai, who tries and fails to kill Kenai several times. Kenai and Koda run into Rutt and Tuke again, and they all catch a ride on some wooly mammoths, which speeds up their journey to the salmon run. Escaping Denahi again, the two bears reach the salmon run and meet a large group of bears. The leader is an amiable sort named Tug (Michael Clark Duncan), and Kenai feels at home with the other bears. While staying with them, Koda tells a story which makes Kenai realize that he was the one who killed Koda's mother.

Koda Kenai Brother Bear 2003
Very lovely visuals in "Brother Bear," like a painting

Kenai leaves out of guilt, but Koda finds him. When Kenai tells Koda the truth, Koda is the one who leaves, leaving Kenai on his own to find the mountain. Koda runs into Rutt and Tuke again, and they inspire Koda to go back and forgive Kenai. Denahi then shows up and is about to kill Kenai, but Koda steals Denahi's hunting gear. Kenai then helps Koda, which causes Sitka to realize that Kenai has learned his lesson. Sitka changes Kenai back into human form, but then Kenai has a big decision to make as to whether he wishes to live as a man with his tribe, or as a bear with Tug and his group.

Koda river Brother Bear 2003
Koda gets his fish

The animation of "Brother Bear" is hand-drawn, with computer graphics used for discrete scenes such as the salmon run and a caribou stampede. The animators spent a great deal of time outdoors, sketching and painting in Florida (not much like Alaska, granted, but at least it also has animals for them to study), in order to get the details of the animals right. Disney was beginning to feel the heat from Pixar, so "Brother Bear" was the last Disney feature film to be primarily sketched by hand. That lends it an artistic feel that adds a certain lyricism setting. "Brother Bear" is in 2D, and uses a neat trick of changing the film's aspect ratio when Kenai is transformed into a bear, broadening the film out and using brighter, more vivid colors. Thus, you can tell what stage of "Brother Bear" you are at with a quick glance, as everything seems livelier and more lush after Kenai changes into a bear.

Rutt, Tuke, Kenai Brother Bear 2003
"We camp here tonight!"

Phil Collins, who did the well-received soundtrack for "Tarzan," returns to do the same for "Brother Bear," with Tina Turner singing the opening and a Bulgarian women's chorus adding a very fine, moving number. The melodies of the various songs are tuneful enough, but the lyrics strike some people as a bit trite. If you liked the "Tarzan" score that Collins did, you'll probably like this one as well, but don't expect too much. The "Brother Bear" songs often sound less inspired than the ones in "Tarzan," though that may partly be due to the fact that they are very different films with different levels of energy. Mark Mancina returns to add the background music, also as in "Tarzan," so "Brother Bear" is a musical reunion of sorts.

Kenai Koda Brother Bear 2003
Hail the call of nature!

There are many people who love this quirky little black sheep of the recent Disney movie oevure. "Brother Bear" has the advantage of being highly respectful of its roots, the native peoples of Alaska and the Yukon. "Brother Bear's" message is simple, direct powerful and sound. On the flip side, there really isn't much new in "Brother Bear" - the songs and background music are a little too reminiscent of "Tarzan," the visuals are pretty enough but hardly astounding (natural vistas like this are one area in which professional live action shots soundly trump any animation), and the plot is so straightforward and "positive" that a blind man could see the resolution with his cane about half an hour in. There are over two dozen writing credits on "Brother Bear," and having that many cooks stirring the broth usually means trouble. It did here.

Kenai Koda Brother Bear 2003
Time for a decision by Kenai

Disney movies dressed up as public service announcements will always find those who love them, there's no question about that - it is the other 95% of the possible audience that may skip this particular Disney movie and wait for one with a little more tension, edge and maybe even a princess or two. The problem isn't that someone's personal spiritual journey toward enlightenment and understanding isn't important, because it is - it is that not everyone feels they need to learn these same lessons or are lacking the understanding gained by Kenai. If you already know a lesson's subject matter, the temptation to stay home in bed and rest rather than going to class to hear something you already know can be, well determinative. Not everyone goes to the movies for spiritual release, but enough do that at least films like "Brother Bear" can get made and seen.
DVD Brother Bear 2003
I love DVD artwork, and this is lovely

The bottom line is that "Brother Bear" is a beautiful, moving film for a reasonably limited audience that can't get enough of its off-beat humor and paean to wildlife and the spirits of the outdoors. Brother Bear's earnest tone and noble portrayals perhaps makes up a tiny bit for the howls of politically correct outrage that greeted "Pocahontas" some years earlier, and Disney is very sensitive to criticism. There was nothing but praise for "Brother Bear" from the people most offended by "Pocahontas," so in a sense "Brother Bear" was a peace offering that worked its magic with the audience Disney was aiming directly at.

Brother Bear 2003
"Brother Bear 2" is one of the better Disney direct-to-video sequels

"Brother Bear"'s overall performance (including home video sales) justified a sequel, "Brother Bear 2," released direct-to-video in 2006. "Brother Bear" itself turned into a major hit on the home video market, selling millions of units (home video perhaps is where "Brother Bear" should have been released originally). There also was a video game of "Brother Bear" for Game Boy Advance and Windows. One practical benefit of "Brother Bear" (which may account for some of those home video sales) is that its mellow tone is a capital way to soothe a rambunctious child, possibly even better than "SpongeBob SquarePants." That tranquility of nature just oozes out of the screen.

Koda, Kenai northern lights Brother Bear 2003
"It's a good thing we're bears, or I'd be pretty darn cold being out in Alaska at night!"

If an animated film about the spirits of the forest is your thing, "Brother Bear" is the film for you! Just about anyone can enjoy "Brother Bear" if they are in the mood for a tranquil, inner journey, and it was respected enough by critics to be nominated for the Oscar for Best Animated Feature. While not one of Disney's big successes, the film did well enough at the box office to merit the sequel, and some would say that the follow-up is even better than the original. "Brother Bear" and its sequel are out on Blu-ray now, that's the package to get.

Below is the trailer for "Brother Bear."