Released in 2003, Brother Bear seems to be one of those Disney films that doesn’t get discussed much. Certainly I had very little idea of what to expect from it. I knew it was a Disney flick, and that it involved an Inuit turned into a bear. That was about it. But since I have hopes of eventually seeing all of the Disney animated canon, that was sufficient reason to check it out.
The film was directed by Aaron Blaise and Robert Walker, and was the first (and so far only) feature film for either of them. Joaquin Phoenix provides the voice for the protagonist, Kenai.
Kenai is a youth on the cusp of manhood, growing up in an Inuit village — or possibly proto-Inuit, given the setting — at the end of the last ice age. Setting the time period when they do allows Disney a certain leeway with traditions and culture; any differences from known Inuit culture can be hand-waved away as something which has changed between the story’s setting and known history. Of course, I know little of Inuit culture personally, so I couldn’t fact-check it were I so inclined, and I suspect most viewers know even less. One thing to note, however, is that as far as I was able to determine, the story in this film is wholly original; it’s not a Disney version of existing folklore.
So any odd moments are Disney’s own.
Kenai is the youngest of three brothers, with the older ones being Sitka and Denahi (D.B. Sweeney and Jason Raize, respectively). As each member of the tribe nears adulthood, they are given a totem animal in a ceremony; this animal’s designated trait is supposed to guide them during their life. Sitka has the Eagle of Guidance (guided by guidance… well, it’s probably effective.) Denahi has Wisdom, though Kenai and Sitka both remark he doesn’t seem to have grown into it. When it’s Kenai’s turn, he is disappointed by the totem chosen for him: the Bear, which represents Love. It strikes him as both unimpressive and inappropriate, feelings which are exacerbated when his own carelessness leads to him having to chase a bear off from a basket of salmon he left on the ground. During the ensuing chase, Sitka is killed by the bear, and Kenai goes after it in vengeance.
The Bambi influence in this film is very strong. Kenai’s actions are painted as being wrong from the beginning, and the film goes to extremes to ensure that the audience sees it as such. This includes plot contrivances and emotional manipulation, as well as symbolism (the Bear represents Love, remember) and overt moralizing. It joins Bambi in implying that Man is the villain. Well, perhaps I misspeak there; it’s not implying so much as outright stating. At any rate, it’s a bit difficult to buy into the wrongness of Kenai’s actions (just as I always found Bambi‘s similar theme irritating). At the time he made them, he was going after a bear that had already shown a willingness to enter a human encampment, and which had killed a person; by the information presented, this bear was a threat to the entire tribe. Nevertheless, as punishment for his crime, Kenai is transformed by the spirits of his ancestors into a bear.
Karma cares not for your justifications.
The movie takes an abrupt shift here, both thematically and artistically. Where the bear is depicted in a (relatively) realistic fashion before Kenai’s transformation, after he is a bear himself, all the bears and other animals in the film are drawn in the traditional Disney style, with larger eyes and detailed expressions. This emphasizes the relatable aspects of the characters now that Kenai can communicate with them (and only them) and is a clever artistic device. Simultaneously, the story shifts in tone from its more dramatic beginning to being something of a buddy film, as Kenai acquires a companion in the form of a young, talkative bear cub named Koda (Jeremy Suarez). Koda is a bit annoying at times, but not greatly so; it’s clearly deliberate, as he acts as a “younger brother” to Kenai, and it’s never overdone.
The highlight of the film, though, has to be Rutt and Tuke, a pair of moose that Kenai and Koda encounter. The brothers are voiced by Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas, and are essentially a cervine version of the McKenzie Brothers. They provide the most successful humor in the film. The other strong point of the film is the artwork; many of the scenes are out-and-out gorgeous, and it’s easy to forget to pay attention to the action and dialogue while looking at the background.
Say what you will, Disney seldom fails to provide a pretty picture.
There are, however, some definite weaknesses to the film. It relies on a contrived coincidence and a dynamic character shift in order to drive home its point about how Kenai was wrong to kill the bear (or at least wrong to kill it in anger; it’s a little unclear on the exact message, since it’s apparently okay to kill fish for food, and deer for buckskin, but we’re supposed to sympathize with the moose….) The contrived coincidences keep piling up as the main means of moving the plot forward as well — such plot as there is. It’s a standard “road movie” type of plot, save that there isn’t a lot that’s terribly interesting happening along the way. An additional weakness is in the music. As with several Disney films from the 1990s and onward, the soundtrack is provided by a big name pop star; in this case, Phil Collins. Most of the songs are bland and forgettable; worse, they don’t fit the feel and setting of the film. The one exception to both of those issues is the song used during Kenai’s transformation, which is actually pretty good. But the rest hurt the film more than they help it.
While I didn’t flat-out dislike Brother Bear, it’s not a film I can picture myself watching a second time. There are much better films in the Disney animated canon, ones which are more worthy of a watch or rewatch. It would appear that the apparent forgotten status of the film is entirely appropriate; there just isn’t much worth remembering.