Having exhausted nearly every sequel possibility from the feature animation canon, the Walt Disney Company has arrived at a place where there are limited opportunities to maintain the steady stream of direct-to-video follow-ups that has now been flowing for over a decade. Sure, the studio could venture into the world of "Part 3"s, but representatives have already publicly stated this is not a plan. (Nevertheless, Cinderella III is due about a year from now and The Little Mermaid III is in the works for 2008.) This leaves a decreasing supply of "2"s and "II"s to be made, especially now that even unlikely outings already been taken, such as continuations to a movie which didn't qualify as a hit until home video (The Emperor's New Groove) and one which can't be considered successful by any conventional standard (Atlantis: The Lost Empire).
Earlier this year, DisneyToon Studios, the TV Animation-turned-DTV division which creates these polarizing pieces, cashed in on something sacred, releasing Bambi II less than twelve months after its predecessor's robustly-selling DVD debut. A gimmick (70-day availability) and some questionable buzz paid off; 2.5 million copies of Bambi II were sold in its first week, easily outpacing the much-praised Best Animated Feature Oscar Winner (DreamWorks' Wallace & Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit) issued simultaneously and putting the sequel among 2006's best sellers.
The rest of the year's slate is not as ambitious. Two original films remain (making for a schedule far sparser than last year's) and both follow "classics" which fall smack in the middle of the road as far as Disney Feature Animation is concerned. Tell most Disney fans that there's about to be more of The Fox and the Hound and Brother Bear and you'll probably get either a shrug of the shoulders or an insincere "Oh, that's interesting." The former project, due just before Christmas, might instill some excitement or outrage among children of the '70s and '80s who hold a special place for the original coming-of-age tale. The latter -- Brother Bear 2, arriving in stores next Tuesday and the subject of this review -- makes a little more sense based on Disney's business models, but it doesn't seem to elicit too much emotion in any direction.
That's primarily because Brother Bear 2 is wholly expected. With a worldwide gross of $250 million, a slight but noticeable presence at Disney's California Adventure, and enough DVD sales to put it among the top 10 of 2004, 2003's Brother Bear is the most recent 2D-animated feature to qualify as a success, or at least come close enough to debate the matter. While its performance pales next to Disney's '90s Renaissance and the numbers put up by Pixar's CGI smashes, Brother Bear stands tremendously tall when compared to Treasure Planet and Home on the Range, the two temporarily nail-in-the-coffin flops it was sandwiched between. Without pondering the earnings any further, if Disney must make direct-to-video sequels -- and sales have spoken louder than critical lashings, which themselves have lessened over the years -- then Brother Bear 2 seems as logical and unobjectionable a project as any.
Bucking the current trend of "midquels" (which keep characters young, cute and identifiable for young, possibly cute viewers), Brother Bear 2 picks up after the unsatisfactory ending of the previous film. There might be noble artistic reasoning behind this decision, but it is just as easily justified by the fact that the big bear and little bear are the most recognizable personalities of the first movie and to have them both, you need to start here. Fidelity gets tossed out the window early on when this sequel dabbles in a bit of retcon; a young woman by the name of Nita (voiced by pop singer/actress Mandy Moore), entirely unmentioned before, is now significant enough to haunt the big brown bear Kenai (Patrick Dempsey) in flashback-based dreams. Nita is essentially Pocahontas, with a slightly different Native American appearance and without as close of a personal relationship to nature and wildlife. Her dilemma, nonetheless, feels borrowed from the heroine of Disney's 1995 film. She, whose mother has died, is about to marry an apparently respectable young man (who just as well could be called Kocoum) to whom she does not seem particularly attached.
Their union is not to be, however, as the ceremony is halted after clouds fill the sky and the pair is literally divided by a lightning bolt, clearly illustrating the disapproval of the Great Spirits. Nita consults Innoko (comedienne Wanda Sykes), an unfortunate "sha-woman" character whose screen time is thankfully limited. With no shortage of contemporary feminist sass, Innoko informs Nita that she must reunite with her old childhood friend, Kenai, and the two must together burn an amulet (that's a neck charm, for those too lazy to look it up) that Kenai gave to her years ago. They must do this at Hokani Falls, a site which requires a trek. Oh, and they only have until the vernal equinox, which is three days away. To aid Nita in the communication department, Innoko grants her the ability to talk Bear, or actually, the Universal Animal Language. This is a good move for all, because the few instances in which the bears sound like real bears always come across as unintentionally hilarious regardless of the context.
Once Nita catches up with Kenai and his young brother-like pal Koda (Jeremy Suarez, returning just before the onset of pubertal voice change) and the inevitable human-bear showdown peacefully gives way to understanding, it's pretty clear where the entire movie is headed, even though you're only a quarter of the way in. Still, I'm of the school of thought that surprises and plot twists don't make or break a movie; if it's any good, they'll be uncovered without a doubt for repeat viewings. Kenai and Koda appear to be content with their life as bears, enjoying the post-hibernation late-winter days like any buddy comedy's respectable mismatched pair. While the other animals (like Michael Clarke Duncan's black bear Tug, who returns for a handful of lines) may have love on the brain (or at least twitterpation), Kenai and Koda are fine just having fun and interacting with one another. That is, until Nita shows up.
Will Kenai long for his old human state? Will Koda feel neglected? Will Nita need to come to terms with some kind of obstacle of her own? The answer to all of these questions is, of course, yes. (Nita's obstacle is a fear of water.) That's all that really needs to be laid out in terms of the plot here, and, if you care to, you'll easily connect the dots upon viewing if you haven't already.
With story particulars out in the open, it's time to get critical. How does Brother Bear 2 fare as a whole? Somewhere in between the offensiveness of Bambi II and the amusing free spirit of Kronk's New Groove. Basically, this is a mediocre movie. While the same can be said of many (if not most) of Disney's direct-to-video sequels, one gets a different feeling when mediocrity follows a masterpiece than when it comes after something which may be entertaining but is recent and still fair game. I liked Brother Bear quite a bit, calling it "a return to quality filmmaking from the studio" a little over two years ago. While Brother Bear 2 does not live up to it or even come anywhere close, I've seen enough of the Mouse's DTV output to not expect that.
Brother Bear 2 is episodic and predictable. It's also a little childish in places, as it appeals to young viewers' senses of humor in broader strokes than the more solemn predecessor did. Still, I can't say I disliked it. It certainly doesn't opt for an excess of preachiness or dumbed-down tendencies. The storytelling here isn't quite as sophisticated as before, but it's in the same vein and doesn't yield entirely different results. The movie flirts with being a retread, but it does enough things differently to be cleared of that charge. It's a bit difficult to pinpoint exactly why this is neither better nor worse than it is, but I've got a theory: the first film does not feel like something intended to be sequelized. Of course, the same point can be made of other classic animated tales, like say, The Lion King (which is less emulated here than last time around) and its two sequels turned out okay. But something about the original Brother Bear -- its arcs, tone, and characters seem most suspect -- somehow make an even greater case for it being a standalone movie. Nevertheless, "okay", "not bad", and "fair enough" are benign comments I can apply to Brother Bear 2.
I feel like I've already said more about Brother Bear 2 than necessary, but I still have a number of other observations about the film that should aid a prospective viewer in deciding to rent or buy this movie. Rather than cut things short and rather than try to flesh each of these comments into paragraphs of their own, I'll now do the literary equivalent of a montage sequence. Patrick Dempsey makes for a much different Kenai than Joaquin Phoenix did, almost to the point where one feels like Dempsey is just being himself or hasn't seen the first movie. That would be a bigger problem if Kenai was better-defined in the first film, but he's sort of tough to read here. Melissa Etheridge, who wrote two and performs three songs here, aspires to a Phil Collins-type sound (Collins does not return, which is a little surprising since he's followed Tarzan to a sequel and now Broadway) with her androgynous vocals. The music is never remarkably excellent or bad; at least it doesn't betray the film's world and seems to fit well. Still, after one viewing, it appears to have neither have the zest nor recall value that Collins' work did.
Without doing a side-by-side comparison, the animation here feels like the first film, even if it's been produced on a tighter budget (noticeable to the trained eye) and by a different studio (the original was down by Disney's subsequently-shuttered Florida animation house). As prominently promised in promos, moose Rutt and Tuke are back, offering Canadian performers Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas a stage to showcase their charming comedic chops. As the brothers haplessly pursue a pair of lady moose (voiced, appropriately enough by fellow "SCTV" players Catherine O'Hara and Andrea Martin), the "come-and-go" nature of their characters underscores their function as narrative device and comic relief, leaving the viewer wanting a bit more from them than sporadic laughs. At least, they have returned. A few other significant characters from the first film have simply been written out, including the elderly shaman Tanana, Kenai's human-brother-turned-nemesis Denahi, almost all of the bears from the salmon run, and naturally, Denahi's retrospective narration. Despite this lack of returning characters, the glimpse of the previous world still feels sufficient and encompassing.
As is usual for Disney's direct-to-video fare, brevity is in order here, as the film barely crosses the one hour mark before end credits are cued. This is appropriate enough for the mostly lightweight and not especially complex proceedings. Those villainous raccoons, however, make for fairly ridiculous adversaries. Finally, predicting the ending long in advance somewhat softens the blow, but it still amounts to a climax which rivals the previous film's conclusion in cheesiness. On the whole, while Brother Bear 2 may not be worth going out of your way to see, it's hard to get too offended by it, mainly because the previous film is recent and not quite sacred (at least not yet), so that the personalities and their world can be further explored while still remembering, respecting, and remaining faithful to that which has come before.
VIDEO and AUDIO
Picture quality is, as you'd expect, terrific. I spent four full paragraphs discussing the aspect ratios offered on the original movie. No such elaboration is necessary here, as this sequel is presented, like most new DTV features, in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen. The visuals are mostly pleasing and any shortcomings you may find tend not to be the fault of the transfer. The original film had some issues with color banding within the bear fur (no joke); I noticed a bit of curiousness to some of the scenery here too, to a lesser extent. Perhaps it's something to do with the palette chosen, one marked by different types of oranges and browns, amidst snowy settings or greenery.
Two soundtracks are provided for English listeners: DTS and Dolby Digital 5.1. Naturally, neither is plagued by anything troublesome. I opted for DTS on the full length viewing and while it was not as potent and immersive as I expected, it certainly got the job done fine. For an outdoors film, Brother Bear 2's sound mix surprisingly didn't attempt to convey environments aurally very often, nor did its dramatic moments entail dynamic peaks or bass booms. Those types of things aren't the prerequisite, but on the surface, Brother Bear 2 promises a more engaging sound experience than it delivers, while not failing the viewer in any significant capacity.
As has become the norm for DTV sequels, Brother Bear 2 is very skimpy in the extras department. "Behind the Music of Brother Bear 2" (8:18) focuses almost entirely on Melissa Etheridge's contributions to the movie. Studio footage depicts her recording songs for the movie. In interview sound bites, praise is dispatched for the singer/songwriter, the moviemakers, and duet-sharer Josh Kelley. But in spite of the promotional feel, there is a tiny bit of insight with regards to how the music shaped the movie, and vice versa.
The only other real bonus feature is a set-top trivia game called "Trample Off, Eh?", which of course involves the comic relief moose Rutt and Tuke. You've got to help them get tickets to the Northern Lights show so they can take (and impress) their "moosette" love interests. To do this, you must correctly answer eight questions, which fall into three categories. The selected category is determined by which opening a pinecone randomly falls into. The differences between the three are subtle; they all seem to involve either events in the movie or facts pertaining to the real life counterparts of the animals in the cast. Needless to say, most players will find the questions very easy, provided that they've watched the movie and aren't especially stupid. The design is sufficient, but the only reward for enduring this challenge is a mildly amusing clip of Rutt and Tuke at their show.
Of course, a 2006 Disney DTV would just not be complete without Disney's FastPlay. Thankfully, this disc has been enhanced with Disney's FastPlay, which makes holding that terrible remote control and figuring out all those buttons completely unnecessary. What a relief!
MENUS and PACKAGING
The Main Menu settles for mild imagination as a montage of scenes from the movie plays on the wall of a cave, surrounded by waterfalls and burning fire. The animated Bonus Features menu lets Rutt and Tuke ramble on as they turn up behind a rock holding the listings. The few remaining selection screens deliver the simple but expected blend of colorful still imagery and score excerpts. Inside the case, one finds the standard double-sided insert and another which gives you the chance to own (and treasure) a Brother Bear 2 pencil case with two purchases from a well-known butter/dairy co-op. The case itself is wrapped around in the typically eye-catching cardboard slipcover, which boasts a holographic background that can put a bag of Skittles to shame when the light hits it right. Curiously, the slipcover loudly touts the involvement of Melissa Etheridge, as if that might be a make-or-break deal for certain folks browsing store shelves.
Sneak peeks at the start of the disc promote The Little Mermaid: Platinum Edition, The Wild, The Fox and the Hound 2, and Air Buddies. The dedicated menu finds additional previews for Twitches, Cars, Mickey Mouse Clubhouse: Mickey Saves Santa and Other Mouseketales, Cinderella III, Disney Princess: Enchanted Tales - A Kingdom of Kindness, and Toontown Online.
Brother Bear 2 is about what you would expect, both in the fact that it exists at all and that it offers what it does. Three years is not a bad amount of time to pass from movie to sequel, and this brief gap ensures a high (though not infallible) level of consistency between this film and its predecessor. While one can easily make the argument that this was not a production that had to be made, the nature of the home video industry says otherwise. And honestly, would you really want a better or older movie to be continued? If the prospect of a Pinocchio 2 or Dumbo II gives you shivers, rest easy that there is nothing sacred being milked or damaged here. Brother Bear 2 is a perfectly adequate, though not outstanding, follow-up to the last good 2D-animated film Disney has made.
As far as the DVD goes, this too meets ordinary expectations. You get a decent feature presentation and close to nothing in extras. Sure, that kind of stinks if you really like the film and bonus features, but those are the shakes.
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