Phil Collins is, of course, a musical genius. Anyone who has seen Tarzan can attest to this incontrovertible fact. Lyrically, musically, emotionally, spiritually, he hit all the right levels and I am not exaggerating for an instant when I say that. However, even Einstein had his off days, so it is with a heavy heart that I write about Brother Bear’s biggest problem: Phil Collins. The Genesis front man and modern day Bach was called up to write the songs for Disney’s Canadian legend about a boy who becomes a man by becoming a bear. Only something must have gone wrong along the way because the resulting soundtrack is so painfully on-the-nose that it feels like he just sang the synopsis of the film. There’s actually a point in the film when there is a big emotional reveal and the two main characters confront some brutal truths. Just as they begin discussing such a problematic issue as matricide, ol’ Phil kicks in with an earnest melody that actually includes the lyric ‘brother bear…’
I‘m getting ahead of myself. Let’s go back to the beginning and discuss the plot and positives of Brother Bear. A young inuit named Kenai is disappointed when he is told that his life’s totem and dominating characteristic that will make him a man is… love. He doesn’t display this love when he goes on a revenge killing and murders a bear. The great spirits who watch over everything then decide that he should pay for his crime by turning him into a bear himself. Once ursine, he has to look after a little cub, Koda, and try and reach the place where the lights touch the earth so he can be returned to two legged, fleshy form. Bonding happens along the way, moose are canadian, and there’s fish out of water humour in literal and figurative senses.
The biggest positive is, naturally, the animation. Even on their off days, Disney could pull out fairly magnificent looking films and given dramatic Canadian landscapes to work with, the Brother Bear team excel. There’s an interesting, largely unnecessary choice made by the directors to change the aspect ratio and colour scheme once Kenai becomes a bear. Presumably it’s related to the fact that now he can see more clearly, but it’s a welcome change as the film becomes breathtaking in widescreen. It’s the best looking Disney film since Tarzan. It’s also regularly funny and, in the credits ‘outtakes’ has the best laugh in any Disney film, ever.
But the problem is that the plot and ‘message’ of the film are hammered home with about as much subtlety as being mauled by a bear. The film starts off with a song about how the great spirits unite all creatures of the earth in one great big circle of life family. This apparent hymn to vegetarianism seems an oddly patronising and culturally suspect song to sing about a group of hunter-gatherers, however spiritual they may or may not have been. Then once Kenai is transformed, he has to learn to love others, particularly the immensely annoying Koda. His journey feels painfully obvious, but the pseudo-spirituality of the film particularly grates as it brings back unwelcome memories of Pocahontas. There’s nothing quite as annoying as the magic leaves, here, but it has a similar sense of ignorance and Hollywoodisation of complex beliefs.
To cap this all off, there’s Phil’s song lyrics coursing throughout with such painful writing as ‘This is our festival / you know and best of all / We’re here to share it all’ to induce winces in audiences all around the world. The themes of family, love and peace are so broad and movieish that when hammered home by Phil – who was clearly writing these on a day off – it becomes an endurance test as to how long you can sit through the songs before getting out your copy of Tarzan. On a positive note, Mr. Collins also wrote the score to the film with Mark Mancina, and that’s actually great. Even in his darkest hour, Sir Phil is still a talented son of a gun.
Sandwiched, as it is, by some of the worst films in the Disney canon, Brother Bear actually comes out looking pretty good. It’s beautifully animated, very funny and largely entertaining. You just wish it was a bit more subtle, which is saying something when talking about a Disney film…