Grade: C

This species-exchange story has got to be one of the weirdest animated pictures Disney has ever made–not on the pictorial side, where it features the company’s customary rich style, but in narrative terms. It’s set among the culture of Inuit tribesmen of some 10,000 years ago, yet the humans in it act like contemporary suburban teenagers. It’s filled with mystical goings-on, but the ritualistic rules, which have a New Agey feel to them, are never explained so that you can understand why or how anything is happening. And, most curiously, its message about empathy takes a cross-species turn. The old notion that one can get to know how the other fellow feels by walking a few miles in his shoes–the “Prince and the Pauper”scenario or, if you choose to take it into a more serious vein, the “Black Like Me” one–here becomes a matter not just of loping on the other’s paws but of deciding whether to remain in them. The denouement is truly peculiar, extolling not only the Brotherhood of Man but the Brotherhood of Mammals.

A viewer has plenty of time to ruminate about all these oddities because though the picture has some nice artwork, it’s overall a pretty tepid affair as far as Disney efforts go, offering more warm fuzziness than energy or dash. It begins with rambunctious horseplay among three brothers: Sitka (voiced by D.B. Sweeney), the oldest; Denahi (Jason Raize); and youngster Kenai (Joaquin Phoenix). Shortly Kenai, in a manhood ceremony, receives his special totem from tribal elder Tanana (Joan Copeland), but to his disappointment it turns out to be the bear of love, a symbol he and his chums consider wimpy. When he goes off after an actual bear that’s absconded with the family’s catch of fish, a battle ensues, and to save Kenai Sitka sacrifices himself. In a rage over his brother’s death, Kenai tracks down the bear and kills it, but then he’s magically transformed into one himself. (At this point the picture switches from a conventional-sized image to widescreen, and the colors from subdued to brilliant.) In his ursine form Kenai can talk to the other woodland beasts, and he soon links up with a couple of fraternal moose, Rutt (Rick Moranis) and Tuke (Dave Thomas). These are the typical Disney comic-relief figures, played as broad (and conspicuously dumb) Canadian caricatures, eh? He also reluctantly teams with Koda (Jeremy Suarez), a voluble bear cub that’s become separated from his mother but tells Kenai that he can lead him to the salmon run that’s in sight of the spot where the mountain meets the sky–the locale where Tanana has told the transformed youth he can find Sitka’s wise spirit. But as they travel they’re pursued by Denahi, who’s convinced that Kenai the bear has killed Kenai the man and is intent on evening the score. Needless to say, as the trek proceeds Kenai commiserates with the ursine perspective, and in the end his affection for Koda has grown. Happily Sitka’s intervention settles matters between Kenai and Denahi, too.

All of this is intended to be both charming, in a Bambi-crossed-with-Winnie-the-Pooh way, and earnestly instructive, like a lesser cousin of “The Lion King.” But the mixture comes across as mostly bland and occasionally absurd, and the dialogue provided by the five writers veers from the pedestrian to the corny (as in the Moranis-Thomas routines). Matters aren’t helped much by the addition of a half-dozen songs by Phil Collins, which are tuneful enough but more generic than imaginative. The upshot is that these bears aren’t nearly as irritating as the country cousins that Disney foisted on us last year, but they’re not terribly endearing, either.

One final point about the message of “Brother Bear.” You have to wonder why, in a movie that speaks so eloquently about the need to respect and preserve life in all its forms, so little thought is given to the salmon that the bears catch and consume in such profusion. Especially after “Finding Nemo,” the oversight seems especially egregious; presumably the circle of life peters out at the water’s edge. Maybe in a sequel we can watch Koda being magically transformed into a fish and coming to understand their plight. That probably won’t happen, though, because this picture is unlikely to revive traditional animation, which has fared so poorly on the big screen of late, and merit a continuation. “Brother Bear” is nicely made, in the voluptuous Disney style, and it’s certainly high-minded; but it’s much less fun than “Treasure Planet,” which lost extravagant sums of money. Unfortunately, for all its visual panache and good intentions, this could prove one more nail in the coffin of animation of the non-Pixar variety.