July 24, 2007

Review of Brother Bear 2

Brother Bear 2 DVD ReviewBucking 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.
How good is it: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.
Comment:  Brother Bear 2 is the latest in Disney's remarkable string of Native-themed movies. I was going to review it, but this reviewer did it for me. I pretty much agree with his or her sentiments.

A previous reviewer said the sequel was better than the original. No, not quite, but it's reasonably close. It shows the usual drop in quality of Disney's direct-to-video sequels.

The present reviewer is right in saying Brother Bear had an unsatisfactory ending. Was Kenai really choosing to spend the rest of his life as a bear, without human companionship? The question of finding a mate was an obvious one and this film addresses it.

From a Native standpoint, Brother Bear 2 is less objectionable than Brother Bear because it shows (or invents) less of the Native culture. The main bit is the scene with the "sha-woman," described above, where she performs typical Indian "magic." Any Indian magic is suspect, since it implies Indian beliefs are closer to supernatural gimmickry than a true religion. But since this is a Paleo-Indian tribe with no clear connection to an existing Inuit or Native Alaskan group, it's hard to say her actions aren't authentic.

There are only a couple more cultural bits worth mentioning. One shows two aunts suggesting different clothes, hairstyles, and meals for Nita the bride-to-be. From what I've seen, most Native cultures have strict, well-defined marriage protocols. Arguing over the particulars as if they aren't set by centuries of tradition seems peculiarly Western to me.

Another bit shows Natives dancing with moose antlers on their heads and a totem pole topped with moose antlers. I haven't heard of a Native culture revering the moose like that. I'm guessing it's made up rather than based on anything real.

Rob's rating for Brother Bear 2:  7.5 of 10.

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