The year is 2003. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King is the highest grossing film at the box office. Meanwhile, Disney is alive and well. Pixar has just released their smash hit Finding Nemo, distributed by the company. The Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, a film series based on a Disneyland attraction (how ridiculous!) has commenced. And in the midst of it all is an oft-forgotten cinematic gem by the Walt Disney Animation Studio known simply as Brother Bear.
Disney decided to stop making traditionally animated films in the early 2000’s, and if it were not for Princess and the Frog, Brother Bear would have been the company’s second last. As Home on the Range is very much par for the course with Disney’s CGI films, Brother Bear is essentially the last of the great tradition and marked Disney’s massive shift around that time, squeezing in right before it completed the journey from epic timeless stories to more forgettable fare full of anachronistic references, slapstick humour, and shallow emotional connection. The forces at work behind this shift will be covered in its own post, but for now all you need to know is that Disney was going in a very different direction, and that as far as they were concerned, the Disney we knew and loved throughout the 90’s, was dead. Traditional animation was what was making Disney unsuccessful so it was canned. Which, I might add, is totally ironic because one of the few things that is constantly amazing throughout the film is actually the quality of the animation.
Obviously these things had been a part of Disney from Beauty & the Beast and even before, but they were used sparingly, and with B&B and Aladdin, the anachronisms were allowed due to the characters being magical. An enchanted candlestick is allowed to perform an elaborate fantasy sequence involving cultural references to modern day France. But a human character should NOT be allowed to spurt modern day speak. And in regard to the cultural reference epidemic plaguing us all in animated films, if you have to define your identity by association to other better works, then there’s not much point watching it to begin with (I even have major issues with Genie – but the film has enough merits in general for me to mostly forget about this). The Simpsons understood this, and got the balance right. But as the years dripped on, Disney (and the Simpsons for that matter) began to rely more and more on this supposed formula – the most important aspect of which (for Disney at least) being the “hilarious” comic relief sidekicks. I use the term “hilarious” lightly. Without fail (except in B&B when they are used just right), I loathe the comic relief sidekicks in every single Disney Renaissance and beyond movie. Mushu from Mulan. Stitch from Lilo and Stitch. And yes, even Timon and Pumbaa. As an adult, I can appreciate now how The Lion King has an epic beginning, and epic end, and then a middle that seems to be a completely different film. A silly romp. Not a timeless classic. But ultimately the heart, humour, and intelligent script pull the movie through so it ends up handling the tonal shift quite well. I’ve got to wonder though if I would have enjoyed the film as a kid without them though. The question is, so what happens when you have a film like this that doesn’t handle its silly sections with the grace and finesse it should? You get Brother Bear.
Now Brother Bear is very much to me on par with The Hunchback of Notre Dame, in that rather than being mediocre films the entire way though (the reason why I loathe a lot of the mass-produced Dreamworks & co. films), these two films are absolutely magnificent and extraordinary most of the time. And then the rest of it is utterly woeful. The tonal shift is too much to bear, and it takes you out of the film completely. In some cases (such as the A Guy Like You sequence from Hunchback) work quite well in their own right, but when put into such an epic tale, it just soils the impact the rest of the movie made. I hate these two films because they show so much promise to be some of the greatest films I’ve ever watched, and then they never cease to taunt me with ridiculously childish elements.
The Opinionated Glee Review once described an episode of Glee where Sue’s (the main antagonist) sister dies – something which is handled in a dark, solemn way and becomes a huge motivator behind the actions made by every character. He then went onto describe an episode where Sue casually pushes a teacher down the stairs for the purpose of a flash-back sight gag to explain why the teacher is absent. This completely soils the show. Both styles work, but within the same show it is hypocritical and awkward. that is exactly how I feel when watching Brother Bear. Even moreso than Hunchback (which I would divide up as around 65% good to 35% bad), Brother Bear (which is about 80% to 20%) is a film that I am completely enraptured by… only to be completely taken out of the film by some stupid quip or some modern turn of phrase that insults the culture being portrayed onscreen and the story being told.
Now as well as having ties to the Lion King, I also noticed reviewers pointing to a few other Disney films that they acknowledge have similarities to Brother Bear. The film has a very Circle of Life opening, and a very “duuuummmm (cut to black)” ending. The music in The Lion King that was not sung by any onscreen character but rather an omniscient spirit served the film extremely well, and the way that feeling is recreated here is astoundingly good. All the music in this film was written by Phil Collins, which gives us ties to another film, Tarzan, which does the same thing. In this film however, he doesn’t perform every song himself, and all the not-him songs, as already explained, are great. I’ll get to Collins himself a bit later. The third noteworthy film is Pocahontas, which is similarly backdropped in Precolonial America, though in my opinion actually does a much worse job at really immersing itself within the culture and mythology of the Native American people. In fact The Nostalgia Critic, in his review of the film for Disneycember, said “this is what Pocahontas should have been”. The film also seems to share the same sensibility as Ice Age – released 2 years before so it’s plausible that the team sought inspiration from it. Unfortunately, they handled their side characters much worse than Blue Sky did.
So on the whole everything is really likeable and well done. The Rafiki-esque/Boob Lady-esque spiritual woman is great, and the swirling Northern lights as an omonous presense in the sky is a wonderful touch. Even so, I do see a few minor problems even within the glorious opening. Namely, that there just seems to be too much anachronistic talking and not enough showing. In a scene with Kenai and his two brothers, they just blabber on and on and on. In really think doing a bonding scene in a 1/3 of the time would have served the film well, giving us a taste of nonverbal communication, or even leaving space to show more of the culture – scenes which are usually shortened dramatically in this movie Notably, the funeral scene is portrayed by a mini montage, whereas I think it deserved a lot more, with a lot more of the culture infused into the ceremony. Everyone – humans and animals – just sounded like the wacky college students portrayed in 90’s movies. Not real people. It’s sad because sure, some of the dialogue may be funny, but so much of it just takes away from the grandness of the story. One of the things in Disney Renaissance movies that I absolutely could not understand and hate with fervor are any of the Looney Tunes-style sight gags. You know the ones. Unrealistic animation. Goofy sound effects. Crudely drawn animation. I hate hate hate them. They do not belong in a Disney movie. Which is why I am pleased to say that as opposed to Hunchback where they roam free, they are nowhere to be found here so that’s a major plus in my book.
It is a masterstroke of storytelling that the entire plot rests around a misunderstanding. There is actually no villain in this story. And if there was one it would probably be our protagonist as he is the only one that does a cruel action (harassing the bear) not due to revenge. He then does another – actually killing Koda’s mum – leading to great dramatic tension as we see a relationship blossom, knowing deep down that there is a dark secret that is moments away from exposing itself and completely changing the way he sees both humans and bears. That’s what makes his transformation so compelling. And it’s also what makes this story in a way better than every single other one Disney has produced. That the “villain”, Kenai’s brother Denahi, is completely 3 dimensional, having an understandable motivation to attack Kenai. It is something not as esoteric as “wanting to take over the universe” or “wanting to remove a threat to power” – in fact he is actually wanting to avenge his brother’s supposed death. He is the only one not in a black-white dynamic with the hero. He is not evil… and in fact at some moments I wondered about if the world was better off if Kenai was dead. That’s the mark of truly great story.
I think the major problem here happens once Kenai is turned into a bear. The whole beginning, despite the few nagging gripes, is done so well and rests strongly in masterpiece territory. And then the second act seems to enter us into a different universe, telling a much less epic and much more silly story. It’s a shame. I have huge issues with the side characters on display here. For starters, the moose are on par with the annoyance of Crash and Eddie of the Ice Age series. Not to mention that they are also highly offensive racial stereotypes of Canadians. Which reduce them to 1-note characters. They bark and yelp about their problems using modern day speak, and are a sharp contract to the wondrous story on display, and it just drags the film down considerably. It’s like shoving an SNL sketch into a film like Snow White. It may (or may not) be funny but in this context it’s just jarring. Their – and Koda’s – dialogue is unbearable (don’t even…) and the modern speak, while par for the course for any modern day feature film, is a sign of a much less ambitious story than the rest of film lets on. Which is a massive shame.
You’ll find that most modern animated films get Rotten Tomatoes ratings in the 70%s or 60%s, and a large part is due to the forgettable and unsubstantial dialogue…. which sadly takes up a considerable amount of this film. It means during the middle of the film – where Kenai’s transition is taking place and he’s readjusting to the animal world, there’s too much joking around and not enough genuine emotion. The problem here is that while a standard film would have 66%-level content throughout (so the audience wouldn’t really notice the difference), Brother Bear is about a quarter 66%, and then three quarters 95%. So much of the movie I’m completely engrossed… but then at other times I’m cringing by how stupid it is. That’s what’s so infuriating. At this point in time, there was a rule where every single Disney film had to have comic relief characters shoe-horned into them no matter how much the film needed them. In this case the film would have been MUCH better without any. The film simply doesn’t need it. In fact, TheDigitalFix notes: “[the moose’s] humour seems to be based completely around the fact that they are Canadian and therefore say “eh?” in every second sentence. While slightly funny for a while, by the end of the movie it has worn thin, and the fact that their actual role in the plot is negligible at best lends credibility to the rumour that they were added to the story at the last minute“. The brother’s adventure trying to track down the bear is a lot more compelling because he’s on his own against the elements. There’s noone to talk to, or to spout exposition with, or to play a random and irrelevant game of eye spy with. Every scene with him I felt, and there was nothing to draw me out of it. I wish that Kenai’s journey had been handled with the same compassion and emotion that Denahi’s did. And on that, I wish they had shown us more from Denahi’s perspective – perhaps giving us some scenes involving his family back home. I read they were supposed to have a dad who was later cut from the film. That might’ve been really cool seeing how they were getting on – like in Ice Age where they periodically returned to the humans. I remember seeing in a behind the scenes that the sidekick was supposed to be a grown up bear. So they could’ve maybe made it really work with a sidekick. But no, he turned into a god-awful annoying character (a bear cub named Koda) that even other characters within the film rolled their eyes at.
The smallness of this story is also shown by the animation. Now, don’t get me wrong. I already said that the animation was great here. And I mean it. But they were doing the best with what they were given. However, despite this story taking place in such a vast landscape, many of the shots in the middle section feel so claustrophobic and are very generic. As if the cinematographer had no active imagination. This is a minor problem, mind you. But in the 10-15% or so that does this, I’m really taken out of the film. It’s like all the silly bits have to have silly animation while the grand bits have grand animation. The sweeping shots are wonderful, but as I said before, then end result is a really uneven tone. It’s also worth mentioning that the narrative itself is a tad clunky. The climax does seem to pop out of nowhere, meaning you’ve barely registered it at the big conclusion before its over. And the story doesn’t flow nearly as neatly as it could.
Now as I’ve already mentioned, this film’s distinctness from most of the Renaissance films that came before it is the same thing it has in common with Tarzan, released 4 years prior. Phil Collins provides the music, which is sung by either him or other artists. Now I gotta say, all the songs in this movie are really good. But when it comes to their purpose within the story, I have my severe doubts. Much of the music in this film plays out as essentially a generic movie soundtrack, where the lyrics are only vaguely relevant to what’s going on, rather that plot-advancing tools as most sung-by-character songs tend to be. In this context, when an interesting story is halted in its tracks for a generic montage, the songs stop a chance for actual character development. It’s the classic “show, don’t tell” predicament. Why show us Kenai is sad and let our emotional connection spring naturally from there, when you can have Phil Collins spell it out for us and tell us how to feel. This is (thoguh obviously to a much larger extent) the major problem with Glee – every episode is so jam-packed full of songs that there is little opportunity for actual plot/character growth, as every important conversation is swapped for a pop song. So the show literally falls back on 3 minutes worth of cliches… multiple times per episode. I want to see these characters interact… not listen to Phil Collins’s “voiceless wailings” about how they’re interacting, in the process drowning them out completely. TheDigitalFix says that “at least here, his percussion-based music seems more appropriate to the tribal nature of the film than it did in Tarzan, where it felt wholly uncharacteristic and contradictory to the imagery on-screen.”
The kicker for me was when he sang over Kenai’s confession to Koda on the cliff edge about what happened to Koda’s mother. I remember watching this for the first time and being really confused and annoyed by that scene. I wanted to know what he said, and I didn’t like not knowing. If they had cut away from the conversation in a really dramatic silent way, that would have been really effective. but when you play a pop song over the most pivotal moment, and we know that there used to be a scene there that has now been muted later in production, is just a kick to the guts. I watched an earlier version of the scene for the first time a few years ago, and it was literally a weight off my shoulders to have this question swirling around in my mind for 8 years – what did he say? – finally answered. And I’m not ashamed to admit I cried. In comparison, the scene that made it into the movie didn’t pull a tear. It didn’t pull anything. Why couldn’t they just let the scene play out? Every time Collins opens his trap I want him to shut it so I can hear what the characters are saying…
TheDigitalFix probably sums it up best:
With five credited screenwriters and a score of people on the story development team, Brother Bear‘s inception was reportedly a painful and convoluted affair. In actual fact, the end result is reasonably coherent, although the middle half of the film suffers from an ambling pace with an indifferent, “so what?” nature. It also takes a bit too long to get started, with Kenai receiving a good 25 minutes of screen-time before being turned into a bear. The opposite is true of the conclusion, which seems to come out of left field and is completely rushed. It actually took a while for it to dawn on me that I was watching the “big” climax.
Brother Bear has a Rotten Tomatoes approval rating of 38% which is just so totally unfair considering the inferior(?) flicks Brother Bear 2 and Home on the Range have approval ratings of 50% and 54% respectively. In short, my hypothesis is that this is because the film’s timelessness became destroyed due to culture being swapped for modernness. Not to mention that 2D animation was by this time a relic of the past, with Disney most probably seeking bad reviews in order to justify their decision to close down that industry. And so that ultimately is what stick with the reviewers, even though the majority of the film was extraordinary. I highly recommend giving this a watch. I dearly love this film, and the griped I have about it are put-up-withable in the knowledge that it was just an inescapable condition of Eisner era Disney. I just can’t help wishing it was the masterpiece it could so easily have been. The same sense of suffering I feel when watching Hunchback. Brother Bear was one of the three films produced entirely on the Disney animation unit in Orlando, Florida – the other two being Mulan and Lilo and Stitch. TheDigitalFix notes “Most people in the know reckon that the reason these two films were so good is the fact that the Florida studio is as far away from executive interference as possible”. It seems they managed to sink their dirty claws into this film however…
P.S. Is it just me or is Brother Bear very Ice Age, and is Brother Bear 2 very Shrek?