Ira Black (Chris Messina) is a prototypical movie New Yorker--he wears a lot of black he's in therapy (well technically analysis) and he's in the habit of over-thinking everything he does from his Ph.D. dissertation to what to order for lunch. Then he meets free-spirited empathetic Abby Willoughby (Jennifer Westfeldt) and everything changes. They're engaged within hours married within a week and in couples' therapy not long after. Meanwhile their long-married parents--uptight opera-going Sy (Robert Klein) and Arlene (Judith Light) Black and freewheeling easygoing Michael (Fred Willard) and Lynne (Frances Conroy) Willoughby--have their own issues to face. And their own professionals to consult. In the end everyone's left pondering the true meaning of love commitment marriage and mental health. When a movie's cast is as full of talented professionals as Ira and Abby's it's hard to begrudge the fact that most of them are playing somewhat familiar characters. Messina's Ira is angsty conflicted and quick to question happiness--in other words every neurotic New Yorker Woody Allen ever played. Meanwhile Westfeldt (who also wrote the film) works the same loquacious slightly kooky charm she perfected in Kissing Jessica Stein; you can't help liking Abby even when you want to shake some sense into her. In the supporting cast Klein Light Conroy and Willard are all strong rising above the "conservative" and "hippie" labels hanging over their characters' heads (it's particularly nice to see Willard in a role that's a bit toned down from his usual brand of cheerful oafishness). And familiar faces like Jason Alexander Chris Parnell and Darrell Hammond are a welcome too. Ira and Abby is only Robert Cary's second feature film credit; his first Standard Time was a musical and you can see some of that genre's broad sensibility here too. Ira's pre-Abby world is all dark colors cool light and sharp lines--but when he crosses into her sphere suddenly primary hues are everywhere rooms are suffused with warm yellow glows and furniture is for relaxing on not admiring. Unfortunately too many of the same kind of obvious cues direct the story as well. Westfeldt's script is smart and often charming but it's never very hard to guess where Ira and Abby is going: If you're looking for a "and then they got married and lived happily ever after" story you won't find it here. Ira and Abby's perspective on marriage may be a bit more realistic than the Grimm brothers' but you still shouldn't recommend it to any newlyweds you know.
As the Ice Age ends we meet Kenai a headstrong teenager anxiously waiting to receive his "totem" or symbol from the Great Spirits that will help guide him through life. His two older brothers Sitka and Denahi have really cool totems--an eagle and a wolf respectively--and Kenai is hoping to get something equally manly. Yet when Kenai is given a bear totem which represents love the young man is humiliated and he vents his frustrations by charging after a bear that's stolen a basket of fish. His brothers rush to stop him and the ensuing battle with the bear ends in tragedy: Sitka dies trying to save Kenai and the grief-stricken younger brother vows to hunt the fleeing animal down in revenge. Just as Kenai catches and kills the bear the Great Spirits start their fun transforming Kenai into a bear and telling him that to become human again he must find the place where "the lights touch the mountain." Kenai a very reluctant bear sets out on his quest picking up a traveling companion--an oh-so-cute bear cub named Koda--who knows the way. Kenai begins to see the world through the bear's eyes and as he gains respect for the animal he finds the true meaning of his totem. Imagine that. It's a formulaic story but somewhat enjoyable and certainly no kid will find fault with it.
Despite thematic similarities Brother Bear is no Ice Age. While both films succeed in conveying a heartwarming message about man and nature during prehistoric times Ice Age is full of clever dialogue and witty banter giving stars such as Ray Romano and John Leguizamo a chance to shine as animated characters. Brother Bear's dialogue sounds more preachy and Saturday morning cartoonish which leaves the voice cast very little to work with--including the Oscar-nominated Joaquin Phoenix as Kenai; Bernie Mac's Jeremy Suarez as little Koda and D.B. Sweeney as Sitka. The saving graces at least for the parents in the audience are Rutt and Tuke a pair of wisecracking moose. Voiced by old friends and SCTV alums Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas the moose performances recall brothers Bob and Doug McKenzie a hilarious pair of Canadian brewery workers Moranis and Thomas immortalized on SCTV (and in film too--remember the 1983 Strange Brew?). Of course Rutt and Tuke are a slightly modified version of the McKenzie brothers since they don't actually wear down jackets drink copious amounts of beer or complain about the hosers of the world eh? Still you can tell pros Moranis and Thomas had fun as their moose counterparts commenting on whichever situation they happen to find themselves in. Pay particular attention to their banter as they catch a ride on the backs of some traveling woolly mammoths.
Disney's Brother Bear animators use all their handy little tricks to paint a rugged and spectacularly beautiful Pacific Northwest landscape but Bear ultimately comes off as another commercial Mouse House product made to generate Christmas merchandising bucks. You get the feeling these guys can do this stuff in their sleep and you suspect they probably did. Even the original songs which usually stand out in a Disney film seem fresh off the assembly line. Singer-songwriter Phil Collins penned six brand new songs for this movie including the main theme song "Great Spirits " but they all seem to hearken back the formula he used in the Academy Award-winning "You'll Be in My Heart" from 1999's animated Tarzan--similar rhythms same basic tune if a little easier on the bongo drums. This is the Pacific Northwest after all not the African jungle.