Every once in a while, Disney just doesn’t have confidence in the story they’re going to tell. This is not the worst example of that, but Lord it isn’t good. It’s as though they decided that there was no draw to a simple, powerful story about a man who must learn that animals are not unthinking monsters and are led by their own needs and drives, and about the power of love, and they cluttered it up with a character who is both a Cute Kid and a Funny Animal, not to mention What If Bob And Doug McKenzie But Moose. I’m interested in one of those movies.
Kenai (Joaquin Phoenix) lives in Ice Age Alaska with his two brothers, Sitka (D.B. Sweeney) and Denahi (Jason Raize). For reasons that are, let’s be clear, almost entirely Kenai’s fault, Sitka ends up getting killed by a bear. Kenai, despite being told that this is not right and not what Sitka would want, goes after the bear. And kills it. And Sitka’s spirit turns him into a bear. The tribe’s shaman, Tanana (Joan Copeland), tells Kenai that he can only properly talk to his brother by going to where the lights meet the mountain. Kenai ends up accompanied by Koda (Jeremy Suarez), a young bear who has lost his mother, and off they go to the salmon run, because Koda says the place where the lights meet the mountain are right near there.
You do not have to be a rocket scientist to work out where Koda’s mother went. Because the only way Kenai can realize that he killed a mother bear protecting her cub is by dealing with the cub, and I guess the cub has to be annoying. The kind of character where you figure Kenai wouldn’t have wanted to hang out with him as a human, much less as a bear. Koda won’t stop talking. And, okay, kids talk a lot; I’ve got two of my own and I understand that. But mine are being taught to understand that adults don’t always want to hear every story they have all the time and that it’s okay if adults want a moment of just . . . not.
I’m also not thrilled with the Bob and Doug McKenzie thing. Oh, I did laugh when they discussed celebrating with [ingredients of beer], but it was still tiresome. Rick Moranis has been essentially retired since 1997, leaving Hollywood to care for his children when his wife died. It’s sweet that he’s here, and of course they also got Dave Thomas. That’s nice. That’s okay. But that doesn’t mean the jokes land for me. It’s worth noting that I never really liked Bob and Doug McKenzie, who strike me as one-joke characters. One Joke Character But Moose isn’t better for me.
All of which is a shame, because this is a gorgeous movie. The music is, you know, Phil Collins, whom I find hit-or-miss at the best of times. And you know it would be nice if they’d gotten, say, Graham Greene or Wes Studi or someone to appear in the movie? It’s an ethnically diverse cast, ranging from Michael Clarke Duncan to Harold Gould to, you know, the aforementioned Canadians. But if there is anyone of Native descent, much less Inuit, even in the “additional voices,” I don’t know about it. It’s annoying.
Still, the actual animation is exquisite. My ten-year-old is extremely fond of taiga, and this movie definitely scratches that itch for him. The movie is set in the fall, in my opinion the most glorious time of year in the forest—especially, of course, any forest with deciduous trees. The film’s design is based on the paintings of Albert Bierstadt; Michael Eisner was a collector of his work and loaned some of his personal collection to the animators as examples. It’s obviously set in the Ice Age based on the fauna—you don’t get a lot of mammoths these days, after all—but it’s still familiar to anyone with an eye for the Pacific Northwest into Alaska.
The human characters actually look at least somewhat Inuit, which is nice; the one human woman with any lines doesn’t look Disney Cute and, for example, has a pretty good-sized nose. (There aren’t a lot of humans with lines full stop, but it’s still true that there are only three women credited out of seventeen people.) Sure, she’s an old woman and not intended to be young and pretty, but it’s still something.
I can’t imagine anyone living the way the characters in this movie do could be unaware of the rule of “leave the bear alone.” If you’re by yourself, you don’t go after a bear with a spear. It just isn’t safe. But, okay, Kenai is young and stupid and makes a foolish mistake for which his brother pays, and then he exacerbates his mistakes by killing a mother with a cub. Still, he’s young, and he’s learning his lesson. Did he need to learn it accompanied by Koda? I put it to you that he did not.