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.
It’s a roundabout script with many unfamiliar names and an abundance of characters. They trek through an enormous number of settings, from mountain ranges to fiery lava fields to dangerous cliffs to coursing rivers and dense forests or even mountain meadows. But through it all, Kenai and Koda develop a brother-like relationship of their own. Had that been all there was to it, the film might have worked.
Brother Bear‘s failing is in trying to do too much. Too may characters, settings, goals and motives with too many lessons. Disney didn’t figure out how to focus this story to bring out its core elements. Instead of telling Kenai’s story or Koda’s story, we get the Kenai-Koda story, the Kenai-Denahi story, the Koda-Koda’s mom story and Kenai’s personal story. All of which is a lot to ask a child to follow. In the end, all those stories are told, but none of them satisfyingly. What results is a heartbreaking moment near the film’s end that just rings empty; it’s one of many climaxes in one of many storylines.
What the filmmakers somehow forgot is cutting material makes for better storytelling. The original script for The Lion King, for example, included an extensive subplot where Scar tried to seduce Nala. Her rejection of his advances was then one of the contributing factors to his madness. The idea was scrapped for two reasons: Sexual assault is a heavy thing to include in a children’s movie; Scar’s desire for power was enough motivation. He didn’t need complicating.
Kenai’s story could have used a similar treatment. He is a brother, a man who must learn to love and be loved in return. His relationship with Koda throughout the film accomplishes this task. The subplots of being hunted by Denahi, meeting awkward Canadian moose and his paranoia of his true identity being discovered by the other bears are simply distractions. They should have been cut early in the development process. Instead, it feels like every writer got to write a chapter and they were haphazardly strung together into a film.
Critics didn’t really understand what the film was trying to do, either. It has a meager 38 per cent rating on Rotten Tomatoes and the New York Times called it a “self-conscious, self-important film.” That reviewer criticized the film for never figuring out what it wanted to be, blending elements of Pocahontas, Mulan and The Lion King into a meaningless puree:
The potpourri of myth and fantasy is swirled into a vague, all-purpose pop sermon whose message of restraint and empathy with all creatures great and small evokes everything from practicing the golden rule and following the Ten Commandments to supporting animal rights.
The box office disagreed with critics, though, and the film didn’t do nearly as poorly as it could (should?) have. Opening weekend in October, 2003, it came in second place overall, right behind Scary Movie 3 but ahead of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It eventually earned more than $250-million worldwide (overall in 2003, though, it was dwarfed by the family hit of the year, Pixar’s Finding Nemo, which hit $340-million in just its first few months).
Artistically, the film did some interesting things. The colour palette changes — becoming more vibrant — after Kenai is transformed into a bear. For the first time in an animated film, the aspect ratio also changed when he transformed into a bear — becoming wider and thinner. The stunning water colour backgrounds and careful character design are also notable, as is the extraordinarily smooth integration of CG elements with the hand-drawn animation. But the visual artistry was unable to account for the lack of storytelling in the film.
Brother Bear was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Animated Film, but (unsurprisingly) lost to Finding Nemo. It was symbolic of the era for Disney: Pixar’s star continued to climb and that studio was releasing hit after hit after hit. Disney, meanwhile, was floundering.
In Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, he notes that this period is also when Pixar began to exert some creative pressure on Disney to step up their game. Jobs was extremely critical of Disney CEO Michael Eisner and, shortly before Finding Nemo and Brother Bear were released, said:
The worst thing, to my mind, was that Pixar had successfully reinvented Disney’s business, turning out great films one after the other while Disney turned out flop after flop. You would think the CEO of Disney would be curious how Pixar was doing that, but during the twenty-year relationship, he visited Pixar for a total of about two and a half hours, only to give little congratulatory speeches. He was never curious. I was amazed. Curiosity is very important.
Jobs was hardly fair, and was never known to be fair. But the sentiment is accurate. The following year, as Finding Nemo and Brother Bear continued the trend he described, the stage was set for an epic showdown of personalities. Pixar’s distribution deal with Disney was coming to an end, but Disney owned the rights to Toy Story — and, importantly, any sequels. Jobs and Eisner, Pixar and Disney, each with a trump card the other did not want played, were coming to loggerheads.
The Eisner-Jobs war would set the stage for the next era of Disney’s history and, remarkably, lead to the next revival of animation.