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‘Brother Bear’ growls with life

Disney flick mixes sibling rivalry, Native American legend. Reviewed by Sheila Norman-Culp.

One of the most powerful forces in the universe — sibling rivalry — blends with Native American legend as a young Inuit boy turns into a bear to find his place in the world in Disney’s latest animated film, “Brother Bear.”

If the subject sounds too heavy or complicated for the G-rated crowd, fear not (and don’t forget, “The Lion King” was all about fratricide). Disney hides the morality tale behind a rip-roaring soundtrack, goofy moose sidekicks and enough bear slapstick to delight any child.

Kenai, voiced by Joaquin Phoenix (lately of “Signs” and “Gladiator”), eagerly looks forward to receiving his personal totem from the tribe’s matriarch Tanana (Joan Copeland). At the ceremony, however, he is shocked to find out that it’s a bear — the symbol of love — instead of a more fearsome eagle or wolf.

Teased unmercifully by his older brother Denahi, (Jason Raize, who originated the Broadway role of Simba in “The Lion King”), Kenai then becomes enraged when a hungry bear nabs his hard-earned cache of salmon.

Bears, it seems, are out to ruin his life.

Sitka (D.B. Sweeney), the eldest of the three brothers, tries to tamp down the bad blood, but a boiling Kenai vows to kill the bear that has shamed him. That rash decision sets off a chain of events that leaves one brother dead and Kenai in the body of the animal he killed.

To return to human form, Kenai must find the mountain of the Northern Lights and rid himself of the unhealthy karma he has unleashed.

Great white north
With accents as thick as cold maple syrup, Canadian comedians Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas reprise their goofy “McKenzie brothers” routine as two moose brothers who end up traveling with Kenai. While Canadians will probably wince at the hick stereotypes, their light-hearted, sidesplitting banter is a welcome relief and shows the very youngest viewers how brothers can sometimes disagree and still get along.

Jeremy Suarez — better known as Jordan on “The Bernie Mac Show” — is spunky and engaging as Koda, a bear cub who latches onto Kenai and playfully teaches him about bear life.

Phil Collins wrote six original songs for “Brother Bear,” the two best being gospel-based ballads belted out (separately) by Tina Turner and The Blind Boys of Alabama.

“Brother Bear” is a homegrown Disney story, developed by producer Chuck Williams and directors Aaron Blaise and Bob Walker, who have all been part of Disney’s Florida animation team since its inception in 1989.

In an effort to “be the bear,” the filmmakers chose to supersaturate the colors in the movie and shift to a wider format when Kenai is transformed, trying to show the world from a bear’s eye view.

InsertArt(2047329)Not a bad idea, but the end result is simply off. Odd colors clash, leaving wildflowers, pine forests and mountain vistas looking unnaturally bright, too pink and purple. That diminishes the visual impact of movie’s magical Northern Lights.

Children, however, won’t care. They are more likely to scream and seek a parent’s lap when the big brown bear roars up to fight Kenai, or laugh at the dimwitted moose.

With a dearth of G-rated fare out there, millions of kids will migrate to “Brother Bear” — and they might even be nicer to their siblings after they walk out.