Sunday, January 20, 2013

Brother Bear (2003) - Nice Lessons from this Disney Movie About Acting Responsibly

Brother Bear: Nature is Calling

Brother Bear 2003
"Brother Bear" (2003).
During the Disney Renaissance that stretched from "The Little Mermaid" to "Tarzan," Walt Disney Feature Animation maintained an upbeat, positive tone in almost all of its Disney movies. If characters weren't singing positive tunes, they were cracking jokes or getting even with someone who had wronged them. When you left the theater, you were either marveling at how funny or moving Robin Williams or James Woods or Jason Alexander had been, or you were humming classic tunes composed by Howard Ashman or Alan Menken.

Brother Bear 2003

It was a happy time for Disney animated feature films, and you weren't called upon to do any more thinking than was absolutely necessary. However, the making of Renaissance classic "Pocahontas" ruffled some feathers in the Native-American community.

Brother Bear 2003

Well, Disney makes amends for "Pocahontas" with "Brother Bear" (2003), helmed by first-time feature directors Aaron Blaise and Robert Walker. "Brother Bear" does have its lighter moments, and it is hardly a documentary on Native American life. However, it is a serious film (though it definitely has some humor) that ponders deep issues. What "Brother Bear" does have is an admirable message about acting responsibly towards the world in which we live.

Brother Bear 2003

"Brother Bear" is one of the lower-key animated Disney movies from the Post-Renaissance era and today is largely forgotten, but definitely remains worthwhile for the right audience. The decline of Disney movies from the heights of the 1990s was becoming obvious by this point, but "Brother Bear" still possesses a thoughtful charm about it that many of the lighter-themed, more popular Disney movies lack.

Kenai, Denahi, Sitka Brother Bear 2003
"And for our next song...."
It is North America sometime shortly after the last ice age. Three brothers, Kenai (Joaquin Phoenix), Denahi (Jason Raize) and Sitka (D.B. Sweeney), are preparing for the sacred ceremony in which Kenai becomes a man. It is time for Kenai to receive his sacred totem, which turns out to be a bear of love. This means that in order to become a man within the tribe, Kenai must prove that he can live his life with love, and all that love implies. Kenai is upset, desiring something more heroic, and believing that all bears are thieves. It turns out to be the perfect totem, though for Kenai has a lot to learn about love, bears and everything else in the wild.

The brothers kayaking Brother Bear 2003
Disney sure knows how to make living in a frozen Hell look like fun.
Somewhat ironically, a bear then steals some salmon from the tribe. The three brothers pursue the offending bear onto a glacier. During a battle against the bear, Sitka sacrifices his life to save his brothers. The bear survives and escapes, and Kenai makes it his mission to hunt the bear and kill it despite his remaining brother's belief that the bear was not at fault. Kenai tracks the bear up to a mountain lake and needlessly kills it. Sitka, now a powerful spirit in the form of a bald eagle, watches all this and decides that Kenai needs to learn a lesson (apparently the totem wasn't enough), so he turns Kenai into a bear. This way, Kenai can atone for his wrongdoing and understand the bear's point of view. Denahi, meanwhile, now thinks that the bear (inhabited by Kenai) has killed both of his brothers, so he vows to track the bear now inhabited by Kenai down and kill it, just as Kenai did (perhaps Denahi needs a lesson, too?).

Kenai in human form Brother Bear 2003
"Bears are nothing but thieves."
Kenai, in the bear form, gets caught in a raging river and swept down through some rapids. Tanana (Joan Copeland), the shaman of Kenai's tribe, who somehow knows what is going on, heals Kenai, then advises Kenai to go back up into the mountains to find Sitka and admit that he was wrong for killing the bear. Tanana then disappears, and Kenai sets off on his new mission to find Sitka.

Film poster Brother Bear 2003
I get cold just looking at this poster!
In his new form, Kenai discovers that he can understand the speech of the wildlife around him. Kenai soon meets two moose, who are named Rutt and Tuke (Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas, reprising their roles as the comic Canadian Mckenzie brothers). Proceeding on his way, Kenai gets caught in a trap but is freed by a chatty bear cub named Koda (Jeremy Suarez). Kenai agrees to go with Koda to a nearby salmon run, after which Koda promises to take Kenai back to the mountain.

Koda Kenai Brother Bear 2003
"Are you trying to be annoying?"
Denahi still is hunting Kenai, who tries and fails to kill Kenai several times. Kenai and Koda run into Rutt and Tuke again, and they all catch a ride on some wooly mammoths, which speeds up their journey to the salmon run. Escaping Denahi again, the two bears reach the salmon run and meet a large group of bears. The leader is an amiable sort named Tug (Michael Clark Duncan), and Kenai feels at home with the other bears. While staying with them, Koda tells a story that makes Kenai realize that he was the one who killed Koda's mother.

Koda Kenai Brother Bear 2003
Very lovely visuals in "Brother Bear," like a painting.
Kenai leaves out of guilt, but Koda finds him. When Kenai tells Koda the truth, Koda is the one who leaves, leaving Kenai on his own to find the mountain. Koda runs into Rutt and Tuke again, and they inspire Koda to go back and forgive Kenai. Denahi then shows up and is about to kill Kenai, but Koda steals Denahi's hunting gear. Kenai then helps Koda, which causes Sitka to realize that Kenai has learned his lesson. Sitka changes Kenai back into human form, but then Kenai has a big decision to make as to whether he wishes to live as a man with his tribe, or as a bear with Tug and his group.

Koda river Brother Bear 2003
Koda gets his fish.
The animation of "Brother Bear" is hand-drawn, with computer graphics used for discrete scenes such as the salmon run and a caribou stampede. The animators spent a great deal of time outdoors, sketching and painting in Florida (not much like Alaska, granted, but at least it also has animals for them to study), in order to get the details of the animals right. Disney was beginning to feel the heat from Pixar, so "Brother Bear" was the last Disney feature film to be primarily sketched by hand. That lends it an artistic feel that adds a certain lyricism setting. "Brother Bear" is in 2D, and uses a neat trick of changing the film's aspect ratio when Kenai is transformed into a bear, broadening the film out and using brighter, more vivid colors. Thus, you can tell what stage of "Brother Bear" you are at with a quick glance, as everything seems livelier and lusher after Kenai changes into a bear.

Rutt, Tuke, Kenai Brother Bear 2003
"We camp here tonight!"
Phil Collins, who did the well-received soundtrack for "Tarzan," returns to do the same for "Brother Bear," with Tina Turner singing the opening and a Bulgarian women's chorus adding a very fine, moving number. The melodies of the various songs are tuneful enough, but the lyrics strike some people as a bit trite. If you liked the "Tarzan" score that Collins did, you'll probably like this one as well, but don't expect too much. The "Brother Bear" songs often sound less inspired than the ones in "Tarzan," though that may partly be due to the fact that they are very different films with different levels of energy. Mark Mancina returns to add the background music, also as in "Tarzan," so "Brother Bear" is a musical reunion of sorts.

Kenai Koda Brother Bear 2003
Hail the call of nature!
There are many people who love this quirky little black sheep of the recent Disney movie oeuvre. "Brother Bear" has the advantage of being highly respectful of its roots, the native peoples of Alaska and the Yukon. "Brother Bear's" message is simple, direct powerful and sound. On the flip side, there really isn't much new in "Brother Bear" - the songs and background music are a little too reminiscent of "Tarzan," the visuals are pretty enough but hardly astounding (natural vistas like this are one area in which professional live-action shots soundly trump any animation), and the plot is so straightforward and "positive" that a blind man could see the resolution with his cane about half an hour in. There are over two dozen writing credits on "Brother Bear," and having that many cooks stirring the broth usually means trouble. It did here.

Kenai Koda Brother Bear 2003
Time for a decision by Kenai.
Disney movies dressed up as public service announcements will always find those who love them, there's no question about that - it is the other 95% of the possible audience that may skip this particular Disney movie and wait for one with a little more tension, edge and maybe even a princess or two. The problem isn't that someone's personal spiritual journey toward enlightenment and understanding isn't important, because it is - it is that not everyone feels they need to learn these same lessons or are lacking the understanding gained by Kenai. If you already know a lesson's subject matter, the temptation to stay home in bed and rest rather than going to class to hear something you already know can be, well determinative. Not everyone goes to the movies for spiritual release, but enough do that at least films like "Brother Bear" can get made and seen.
DVD Brother Bear 2003
I love DVD artwork, and this is lovely.
The bottom line is that "Brother Bear" is a beautiful, moving film for a reasonably limited audience that can't get enough of its off-beat humor and paean to wildlife and the spirits of the outdoors. Brother Bear's earnest tone and noble portrayals perhaps make up a tiny bit for the howls of politically correct outrage that greeted "Pocahontas" some years earlier, and Disney is very sensitive to criticism. There was nothing but praise for "Brother Bear" from the people most offended by "Pocahontas," so in a sense "Brother Bear" was a peace offering that worked its magic with the audience Disney was aiming directly at.

Brother Bear 2003
"Brother Bear 2" is one of the better Disney direct-to-video sequels.
"Brother Bear"'s overall performance (including home video sales) justified a sequel, "Brother Bear 2," released direct-to-video in 2006. "Brother Bear" itself turned into a major hit on the home video market, selling millions of units (home video perhaps is where "Brother Bear" should have been released originally). There also was a video game of "Brother Bear" for Game Boy Advance and Windows. One practical benefit of "Brother Bear" (which may account for some of those home video sales) is that its mellow tone is a capital way to soothe a rambunctious child, possibly even better than "SpongeBob SquarePants." That tranquility of nature just oozes out of the screen.

Koda, Kenai northern lights Brother Bear 2003
"It's a good thing we're bears, or I'd be pretty darn cold being out in Alaska at night!"
If an animated film about the spirits of the forest is your thing, "Brother Bear" is the film for you! Just about anyone can enjoy "Brother Bear" if they are in the mood for a tranquil, inner journey, and it was respected enough by critics to be nominated for the Oscar for Best Animated Feature. While not one of Disney's big successes, the film did well enough at the box office to merit the sequel, and some would say that the follow-up is even better than the original. "Brother Bear" and its sequel are out on Blu-ray now, that's the package to get.

Brother Bear 2003



  1. I just came across your blog but wanted to say that this is a great post. "Brother Bear" is one of the most underrated Disney films of all time because it carried such a wonderful message about conflict resolution and did it in a creative way. The music was wonderful and I hope that people rediscover it and connect with it's deeper message.

  2. Thanks very much... it's a very different kind of Disney film which departs completely from the princess idea, and that's one reason people don't think about "Brother Bear" very much. The sequel is a treat as well.

  3. Thanks for the tip! I'll check that out. :)

  4. Very good post, except Kenai wasn't turned into the dead bear. The dead bear is still there in the very end, I can't say more without spoiling it, but he was certainly not turned into the dead bear. Just a bear.