In a time when wooly mammoths still existed, a Native American teenager (no, he’s not Cro Magnon) anxiously awaits the initiation ceremony that will usher him into manhood. When his granny gives him a prissy “love” totem, his older brothers dutifully bust his balls. Later, Kenai (Joaquin Phoenix) is magically transformed into a furrier, cuter incarnation of the same scary bear that killed his brother, and for the rest of Brother Bear has to learn to get “in touch with his totem.” In order to make this story as accessible as possible for its young audience, this terrible, dorky Disney toon reduces the spirit world of the film’s so-called Native Americans. Forget that the Eden-like afterlife of the film is a soulless light show in the sky. More dangerous are the implications of everyone’s vested interest in that spirit world (and vice versa). Kenai’s granny is connected enough to the rave in the sky to know that the boy has been turned into a bear but seemingly forgets to tell the boy’s brother, Denahi (Jason Raize), about the transformation. This perpetuates a series of whoopsy-daisy misunderstandings that only serve to reinforce the notion that the earth gods are vengeful. If the spirit world’s judgement is all eye-for-an-eye, it bears mentioning that there’s an underlying sexism to the film. (Here, femininity is likened both to weakness and love.) When the thoroughly modern teens of the film poke fun of Kenai for getting a girly totem, they all but stop short of calling him a “faggot.” There’s an obvious contempt to Sitka’s insult that Kenai needs to connect with his totem (read: feminine side), one that’s further emphasized by Kenai’s bizarre transsexual transformation and nurturing relationship to an adorable bear cub named Koda (Jeremy Suarez). One can only imagine what the transcendent effect of the film could have been if the animals didn’t speak, or if the film’s “natives” weren’t so actively engaged in living out a schematic 2D moral plan. Even worse, this patriarchal-friendly film just isn’t any fun. The supporting comedy troupe of animal goofballs (essentially a smorgasboard of ethnic stereotypes and cultural clichés, from Italian-American rams to surfer-dude bears) and the embarrassing Earth Mother chants by Phil Collins further remove us from the world of the sacred past and straight into a Disney marketeer’s cubicle.
It's funny how the logistics of aspect ratio need to be spelled out for anyone buying a kid's movie. On this two-disc edition of Brother Bear, Buena Vista Home Entertainment allows you to choose between a (get this) "family-friendly" aspect ratio (1.66:1, available on the first disc) and the original theatrical aspect ratio (2.35:1, available on disc two). However vile and mundane Brother Bear may be, it actually demands to be seen in its original widescreen: after 20-odd minutes (precisely when Kenai turns into a bear), the film's aspect ratio expands. I don't know what this little gimmick has to say about how bears and humans look at the world, but you'll be losing the effect of the transformation if you watch the "family-friendly" version. As for the actual image: considering the amount of features available on this disc, don't be surprised by the considerable amount of edge enhancement on display. Brother Bear isn't a pretty film per se, but backgrounds are pretty solid and the image is clean overall. Dialogue is a little echo-y, but the Phil Collins songs and foley sounds come through loud and clear.
The more "family-friendly" features naturally appear on the less desirable first disc, which begins with an un-listenable commentary track by the "hilarious moose from the film," Rutt and Tuke. Less frustrating is "Koda's Outtakes," which features a running farting gag that's rather amusing, and two "exciting" games: a bone puzzle obviously designed for toddlers and a question-and-answer test that allows you to find your totem. If that doesn't interest older kidlets, there's always the "On My Way" sing-a-long and the creepy "Bear Legends: Native American Tales" (so that's where bears came from!). Rounding out the first disc is the VH1-friendly "Look Through My Eyes" music video by Phil Collins, the self-explanatory "Making Noise: The Art of Foley," "Art Review," which tragically shows how the original animations became Disneyfied over time, and trailers for The Incredibles, Chicken Little, The Three Musketeers, Mary Poppins, Mulan and the upcoming special edition DVD of Aladdin. Disc two begins with the whopping, 45-minute making-of featurette "Paths of Discovery," followed by a collection of embryonic deleted scenes, a behind-the-scenes peek at the Bulgarian women who sang on the "Transformation" song, and the never-before-heard "Fishing Song."
Strictly for people who don't care about aspect ratio and know nothing about animation and Native American culture, or anyone who owns a CD by Genesis.