Brother Bear (2003)
Directed by Aaron Blaise and Robert Walker
[Ed. Note: Sorry this is later than usual. I forgot to actually set a posting time for it, and only realized when I got on today to upload next week’s post]
During the Ice Age, three brothers from an Inuit-esque tribe gather for a ceremony that will mark the youngest brother Kenai’s ascension to adulthood. Each member of the tribe is given a totem that will symbolize what they need to do to become an adult. While his brothers received the Eagle of Guidance and the Wolf of Wisdom, Kenai is given the Bear of Love. Kenai rejects the totem for being “unmanly”, and because bears are thieves. To accentuate his point, the brothers’ catch of fish is promptly taken by a bear due to Kenai failing to secure it properly.
Kenai chases after the bear but ends up angering it. The oldest brother, Sitka, sacrifices himself so that Kenai can escape, but the bear itself survives. Swearing vengeance, Kenai pursues the bear again, and this time gets the upper hand and kills it. As punishment for killing his totem, Kenai is then turned into a bear himself by the Ancestor Spirits. He learns that if he wishes to become human again, he will have to journey to a specific mountain where he can petition the Spirits to be changed back. The third brother, Denahi, does not witness this, and assumes that Kenai is the bear from before and that it has now killed both of his brothers.
As Kenai travels, he encounters a lone bear cub, Koda. Koda tells him that the mountain he seeks is near the salmon run where all of the bears gather, and offers to show him the way. Along the journey, Kenai begins to care for Koda, and rescues him from Denahi, who has been tracking them. When they reach the salmon run, Kenai realizes that Koda’s missing mother is the bear that he had killed. Koda is heartbroken and rejects Kenai, leading Kenai to set out to climb the mountain alone. There he is confronted by his brother, but is rescued by Koda, who’d had a change of heart and followed him. Kenai sacrifices himself to save Koda, which is enough for the Ancestor Spirits to return him to human form. Kenai, however, asks to be changed back into a bear, so that he can look after Koda.
After the huge success of The Lion King, Disney CEO Michael Eisner really wanted more animal-centric movies. However, pretty much everything in production at the time (Pocahontas, Hunchback, Hercules, etc) was centered on human characters. It would take some time for Eisner to get the animal movie he wanted. He liked the idea of doing a movie about a bear, since wanted a parallel to The Lion King and thought that bears were the “king of the forest.” However, “bear movie” was about as far of an idea as he got.
It wasn’t until 1997, when animator Aaron Blaise was brought on as director, that they hit on the idea of having a human be transformed into a bear. It took a couple of years to get the rest of the story in place, with Koda originally having been an older bear named Grizz, who looks after Kenai instead of the other way around. The movie officially started production in 2000 as the next project for the Florida branch of the studio, who were finishing up their work on Lilo & Stitch (the main studio was still working on the much more elaborate Treasure Planet).
Brother Bear was originally slated to come out in 2004, after Home On the Range. But the two films had their release dates flipped, with Brother Bear now scheduled for November 2003. While this was supposedly so that Brother Bear could be promoted on the special edition DVD release of The Lion King which was coming out for that holiday season, I don’t fully buy it. As we’ll discuss next time, Home on the Range had almost as many production difficulties as Emperor’s New Groove had, and I doubt that it could have made its original release window.
For whichever reason, Brother Bear was released to generally mixed and lukewarm critical appreciation. Most reviewers criticized it for being fairly generic and lacking the personality that had made each of the Renaissance films so different and exciting. Audiences didn’t seem to care, however. The movie made over $250 million at the world-wide box office on a relatively low $46 million production budget. (though it still failed to break $100 million in the US).
Brother Bear is….fine, really. A perfectly serviceable piece of entertainment for kids. But when the best I can say about a Disney movie is that it’s “serviceable”, you know that the creative well which sparked the Renaissance is just about tapped out. It’s a shame, too, as there’s definitely an idea here that could have been something better.
For starters, there’s about enough plot in this movie to fill one of the shorts from the package film era. Some goofing off with Kenai and his brothers at the beginning, two fight scenes, a bit of travel as a bear, a conversation at the salmon run, and then the confrontation at the end. The movie is only about an hour and 15 minutes without the credits, and you could probably trim it down to fit into an hour TV time slot WITH commercials if you tried.
The only characters you really get to know at all are Kenai, the bear cub Koda, and the two comedy relief moose. And the latter two are literally just the characters of Bob and Doug McKenzie of SCTV and Strange Brew fame (with original Bob & Doug actors Dave Thomas and Rick Moranis doing the voices). Koda is cute, but I found him a little too annoyingly talkative to be really likeable as a character. Every other character is a one- or two-scene wonder, or else (like Denahi) presented as a pursuing danger rather than an actual character for most of the movie.
Another place where the movie really falls down is the music. After several years worth of movies without much in the way of original songs, it seems that Disney wanted to try to return to their glory days of the Renaissance musicals. The clear inspiration for this one was Tarzan, with the music being sung as a commentary on the action rather than by the characters themselves. To that point, they hired Phil Collins to write and perform the songs once again (with an assist from Tina Turner). Unfortunately, this time around he seems to have phoned in the work. Even just a couple of days later I’d be hard pressed to hum a single tune from any of the movie’s numbers. It’s definitely disappointing, considering Collins’s songs were one of the highlights of Tarzan.
Now, not everything about the movie sucks. The core idea, of someone getting turned into an animal and learning to live as one while figuring out how to turn back, is solid. So solid, in fact, that they’d revisit it with much more success a decade later in The Princess and the Frog. There’s also a fun bit of experimentation with the film’s composition and cinematography that I actually appreciated (once I realized what was going on). For the first 20 minutes or so of the movie (the part where Kenai is human), the screen is in a standard widescreen aspect ratio of 1.75:1, and the color palate is mostly muted with predominant earth tones. Once Kenai becomes a bear, the film suddenly expands into the much wider anamorphic ratio (2.35:1), and everything becomes much more colorful and vibrant.
Unfortunately, I was watching it on Disney+, and I spent that first part of the movie trying to figure out if I had it on the wrong settings. I didn’t even really notice the transition when it happened and only realized at the first big wide shot in anamorphic. So it was a nice effect, but probably would have made more of an impact if I’d actually have seen the movie in theaters.
So yeah, there’s some good ideas here. It’s just that the execution is so lackluster that it brings the whole endeavor crashing to the ground. It’s not like Brother Bear is offensively bad or anything. It’s just….fine. Kind of forgettable, like Fox and the Hound or Oliver & Company. The same can’t be said for our next movie, however. Ooh boy….
Up next, Home on the Range
Animation: B+ (Not outstanding, but that trick with the aspect ratio and color palette brings it up a couple points)
Main Characters: C+ (Kenai is pretty much just “irresponsible younger brother” as a human, and is so mission-focused while a bear that he doesn’t develop much of a personality.)
Supporting Characters: D+ (When two fairly annoying characters ripped wholesale from SCTV are the most interesting ones, your cast has problems)
Villains: C- (Does “blind revenge” count as a villain? Otherwise, Denahi is the closest thing the movie has, and he’s not really a character per se after Kenai becomes a bear, just a scary thing chasing them)
Music: C- (Not jarringly bad, but so unmemorable that it went in one ear and out the other)