Kenai longs to complete the rites of manhood, but after his older brother drowns in a tragedy involving a bear, he hunts down and kills the animal. Unhappy with this vengeance, the spirit world decides Kenai must live life as a bear himself.
With 3-D animation now dominating the medium (and the box office), the performance of Brother Bear will be a litmus test for Disney's 2-D animation. Nevertheless, Disney's Florida animation studio (which made Lilo & Stitch) has managed to pack in all the essential ingredients of Disney's magic, from loveable characters to technical wizardry, with stunning colours and a worthy finale.
The story opens 10,000 years ago in the Pacific Northwest towards the end of the Ice Age, as a human tribe celebrates the rites of passage for headstrong young Kenai (voiced by Joaquin Phoenix) as he receives his totem. Later, when Kenai misguidedly kills a bear and loses his oldest brother, it seems like an unusually dark mood is in the air. However, as soon as Kenai is himself transformed into a bear and the animals start talking, we know we are back in familiar Disney territory. Kenai must now head to a mystical mountain and ask the spirit of his brother to transform him back into a human; with the help of Koda, an abandoned cub, he learns much more than he bargained for on his quest.
The lack of female characters in the film is notable, but then again, there's not much room for sisters in an epic tale of brotherly love. That said, Brother Bear at times is heartbreakingly sad - maybe not quite Bambi territory, but certainly moving in its own cute and furry way. The visual influence of the spirit world on the story as it unfolds brings with it a rich and exquisite range of colours, from the mysterious lights on the mountain, rivers, lakes and flowers, to warm rays of sunlight peeking through a hedge. This adds further depth, beauty and magic to a delightful story.
Short, sweet, entertaining and mercifully low on the musical numbers (supplied by Phil Collins and Tina Turner), this is good, old-fashioned family fun. Though Brother Bear probably won't enjoy The Lion King's share of success.