Monthly Archives: November 2012

Brother Bear (2003)

Kenai and Koda — unlikely brothers.

Brother Bear is an odd film. It attempts simultaneously to be a buddy movie, a deep drama about coming of age, a lesson on dealing with loss and responsibility, and a morality tale on respecting nature. But it never actually found its footing. It’s the next, but sadly not the last, example of Disney’s lack of direction in the early 2000s.

Brother Bear opens with brothers teasing each other as brothers do. Kenai, voiced by Joaquin Phoenix, is a young Inuit man who is awkward, absentminded and often out-muscled by his older brothers. In his desperate need to prove himself a brave warrior, he chases a bear that had raided his stockpile of fish and, in the ensuing hunt, his brother Sitka is killed. Kenai, in his resentment, hunts the bear and, in turn, kills it. Kenai is then promptly transformed into a bear himself to learn a lesson in empathy and love.

The remainder of the film centres around Kenai and his new friend Koda, a younger bear he meets as they migrate to the salmon spawning grounds. Along the way, they meet their fair share of amusing secondary characters, including a pair of Canadian moose voiced (in accent) by Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas. Meanwhile, Kenai’s remaining brother, Denahi, is hunting them in vengeance for the perceived death-by-bear of his two brothers.

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Treasure Planet (2002)

Jim Hawkins turned out to be a bit unlikeable among audiences.

During the 2000s, Disney not only abandoned the formula that had granted them unparalleled success in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but the company was also churning out animated features at lightning speed. Quality was bound to suffer, and 2002’s Treasure Planet probably got more flak because of that downturn than it really deserved.

The idea sounds a bit hokey: an adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic novel set in space. But it actually worked. Personally, I could have done with a more traditional retelling of the story, but the space-age setting didn’t detract from the story of young Jim Hawkins (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). Jim longs for adventure, longs to prove himself and feel that his existence has meaning. In a sea of galaxies, his inner struggle shouldn’t come as a surprise. He’s also coming to terms with an absentee father and a few of his own run-ins with the law. He’s a quintessential troubled teen who embarks on a grand journey that ends up drastically changing his life.

What is distracting, though, is the film’s steampunk style. The look and feel of the character design is drawn from Victorian England with inspiration from the Industrial Revolution, but the settings are futuristic. I mostly just wished the animators had picked one era and stuck with it. And while recognize the style’s place in the world of art, even though Treasure Planet wasn’t the first Disney film to make use of it, as pointed out by Steampunk Scholar, the style wasn’t fitting of the story Disney was trying to tell in this film. Critics also bemoaned the “mainstreaming” of steampunk — because, of course, there’s no way it could ever be cool again now that Disney had jumped on the bandwagon.

The story was a fair adaption, the animation was fluid and the action tense, but the characters had trouble making a real connection with the audience. Even as self-sacrifice and personal connections drive the movie forward, it’s hard for audiences to feel much for them. It all amounts to a less-than-satisfying, if adventurous, finish.

The lack of an animated hit was starting to put financial strain on the studio. It was particularly painful that their most successful film during this time was the low-budget Winnie the Pooh sequel The Tigger Movie. The big-budget, high-concept “official” releases just weren’t performing. And the rising success of rival studios Pixar and Dreamworks (who released Shrek in 2001) certainly wasn’t helping. According to the LA Times, the $140-million Treasure Planet was a dream directors John Musker and Ron Clements had been trying to get off the ground for almost two decades. The film’s dismal $12-million opening weekend gross was one of the weakest ever for Disney and lead the company to revise its already-reported fourth-quarter earnings, providing further fuel for the skepticism beginning to develop around the studio that it wasn’t up to producing the big blockbusters of the past. The studio blamed a lacklustre marketing effort, but it was clear more was amiss. The ordeal ended up leading to a shrinking of the animation department, several layoffs across the division and a slowdown in the number, and size, of the animated features that would come.

In the context of what else the studio was releasing in the 2000s, Treasure Planet is certainly not even close to being at the bottom of the barrel (and even ended up with an Academy Award nomination for best animated film). But it remains further proof that Disney had lost its Midas touch.

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Lilo & Stitch (2002)

Lilo introduces Stitch to her friends.

Lilo & Stitch is a heartwarmer. Stitch is an adorable, if extraordinarily quirky, character who manages to be both sidekick and hero. At the same time, it’s a movie that hardly knows what it’s supposed to be: part sci-fi epic about a misunderstood genetic experiment, and part family story about two sisters trying to make it work in trying times.

The combination works, though. Stitch is an adorable character that, like Wall-E, whom Pixar would later invent, manages to convey real and universal emotions without the use of language. Lilo is a child desperately trying to fit in when she’s just a little bit stranger than her friends: something almost everyone can relate to. Ultimately, Lilo & Stitch — despite space aliens, a trip across the galaxy and a genetic experiment falling on a Hawaiian village — becomes the perfectly normal story of two people desperate for love and acceptance who find each other and forge a perfect friendship.

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Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001)

Milo gets choked up when he gets his first aerial view of Atlantis.

Atlantis is an oddity, mainly because it never feels like you’re actually watching something produced by Disney.

For this animated outing, Disney decided to take the action/sci-fi route. After a brief history of how the island of Atlantis went missing, the film jumps to 1914 and introduces us to linguist Milo Thatch (voiced by Michael J. Fox) and his lifelong goal of discovering the lost city of Atlantis. After being turned down, yet again, for research funding for his expedition, Milo is summoned to the home of an eccentric millionaire named Whitmore who was good friends with Milo’s grandfather. Whitmore makes two very important contributions to Milo’s quest: a journal that may contain the secret to Atlantis’s location and ragtag team of explorers, scientists and mercenaries to join him in his search.

Milo is a likeable hero, despite portraying all the stereotypes of a science nerd to a T. Even Kida, the Atlantean princess-turned-love interest, tells Milo: “Judging from your diminished physique and large forehead, you are suited for nothing else.” Milo is not tragically flawed, like Beast, or delightfully charming and funny, like Prince Naveen to come, but from his first introduction, you’re left with the impression that he is a good guy with a dream he desperately wants to come true. And you can’t help but root for him. While the look and feel of the film may not be what audiences are used to from the company, rooting for an underdog hero is undeniably Disney.

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The Emperor’s New Groove (2000)

“A llama? He’s supposed to be dead!”

Welcome to Disney’s identity crisis.

The Emperor’s New Groove began production while the studio was focused on Mulan and Tarzan. It was originally supposed to be called Kingdom of the Sun and was supposed to be a moral tale based on The Prince and the Pauper. The tone was supposed to be similar to The Lion King, where the egotistic Emperor Kuzco swapped places with a villager who looked like him, both learning lessons in the process. Sting was even hired to produce the sweeping ballads that would do for Kingdom of the Sun what Elton John did for The Lion King.

To state the obvious: That’s not the movie that was eventually made

By the summer of 1998, the love interest was ditched, Yzma’s plan to blot out the sun was gone and the new film was a buddy flick to be made without Sting’s involvement at all. Instead of a drama, it was now a light-hearted comedy.

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