Brother Bear is the second Disney Animated Movie starring native characters from the North American continent. More specifically, this one stars Inuit characters, who generally live in the far north of Canada or in Alaska, in Greenland and a handful of them in Denmark and Far East Russia. Brother Bear doesn’t specify exactly where the characters live or what time period they live in, as there are no foreign invaders, but it clearly doesn’t take place during an ice age thanks to all the plant life in the movie. Some of the dialogue from minor characters give hints that the movie takes place in Canada, but I’ll get deeper into that later.
Brother Bear was originally pitched as heavily inspired by William Shakespeare’s King Lear. After a few story changes, it eventually became the movie it is today. It was fairly successful, earning $250 million on a reduced budget of $44 million (the last couple of animated Disney movies each costed more than $100 million). It received mixed reviews, with a score of 38% on Rotten Tomatoes and a 48% on metacritic. They weren’t super negative in general, but as far as I can tell, it’s the first movie in Disney Animation Studio’s history to receive a negative score on both websites. So I wasn’t looking forward to this one going in.
After seeing Brother Bear, my thoughts on this movie are mixed. The idea behind the story is a great one, and there are good moments sprinkled throughout. However, there are a lot of things that hold it back from being good.
Brother Bear is about Kenai, the youngest of three brothers of an Inuit tribe living deep in what appears to be somewhere between the Rockies and the Canadian Shield. He’s in his mid-teenage years or so, and often gets into minor arguments with his middle brother, Denahi. Their older brother, Sitka, is the leader of the trio and the wisest. After Kenai fails to tie up a basket of fish properly, the fish are taken by a bear. Kenai, who hates bears, heads out to find the fish and potentially kill the bear. His determination is made all the worse when he’s hoping for a totem representing bravery or being a warrior, but he’s given the bear of love instead.
When Kenai tracks down the bear, it turns into a fight involving all three brothers on top of an ice covered mountain. It ends tragically, with Sitka sacrificing himself by cracking an icy cliff he and the bear are standing on. He falls to his death, yet the bear survives. Kenai heads out for revenge, kills the bear, but then the spirits turn him into a bear in hopes to teach him a lesson. Up to this point, the movie is kind of brilliant. The exploration of Inuit culture is fascinating and there’s a lot of potential for drama. But this is also where the movie starts falling apart.
For the entirety of the time we spend with the Inuit tribe, people talk about spirits and totems, and it’s a great exploration of their culture. Their use of language is timeless and enhances the spiritual mood and themes. As soon as Kenai becomes a bear, all the animals around him talk in modern slang. The young cub that Kenai ends up traveling with keeps saying “dude” and other similar speak, while these two moose speak in stereotypical Canadian voices and language. That’s why I’m guessing this movie takes place in Canada by the way.
Interestingly enough, Brother Bear and its straight to DVD sequel are the last two movies that Rick Moranis ever involved himself with, where he voiced one of those moose. These moose characters are kind of entertaining and it doesn’t clash with the Inuit’s spiritual talk like the cub’s “dude” speak does, but it doesn’t quite fit with the movie’s opening either. I won’t get into why Rick Moranis mostly left show business, but I very much respect his reasons. If you’re interested you can easily find out for yourself.
The modern speak is by no means the only thing holding this movie back from its great potential. Everything about the story is predictable for the rest of the movie. Kenai is annoyed by the cub at first, quickly growing sick of all the stories he’s telling. As time goes on he gets used to him, and even reaches the salmon gathering where a whole bunch of other bears are hanging around. Through these bears, Kenai learns that they’re not heartless monsters, but they’re beautiful creatures in their own right. He learns to truly love the cub. And then there’s the inevitable moment where he figures out that he killed the cub’s mother and confesses. Through all of this, he learns the true meaning of his totem, love, and at the end, he decides to stay as a bear to take care of the cub, yet still reconnects with his Inuit tribe.
The whole time, Denahi his hunting him down, trying to avenge both of his brothers. What could be some exciting actin ends up being kind of lame. Perhaps it has something to do with the reduced budget holding back the potential for action scenes a bit. With the exception of one moment during the scene where Kenai kills the bear, where the cub’s mother jumps on top of Kenai and he desperately fends her off with his spear, the action is never all that fast. However, it does have a bit more of a methodical feel to it, with characters on both sides of these fights clearly thinking things through. It works in its own way.
But Brother Bear’s two biggest sins are behind some of the stylistic choices behind the movie. The first is relatively minor, but still kind of bizarre. The movie opens in full-screen, and remains that way up until Kenai becomes a bear. All the sudden, it turns into a wide screen movie and stays that way for the remainder of it. It’s a jarring change that in no way enhances the feeling of Kenai being a bear.
Compare that to the original Wizard of Oz and Tron: Legacy. The Wizard of Oz shows the real world in black and white, while Oz is in colour. It’s an effect that increases the feeling of wonder, especially back then when colour movies were very new. Tron: Legacy did the same thing with 3d, where the real world was only shown in 2d, while the world of Tron was in 3d. Again, it enhanced the artificial feel of the Tron world a bit. It’s probably the only use of 3d in movies I’ve ever cared about, and that’s because it was creative. But in both of those cases, they used fairly new technology (in Tron’s case, it just made a major comeback after the previous year’s Avatar). But widescreen’s been used by animated movies for decades now, so what’s the point of changing the aspect ratio in the middle of the movie. It’s nothing but distracting for a brief moment, and then nobody cares.
I wish movies would stop changing aspect ratios in the middle of them. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire did it. The Dark Knight Rises did it multiple times during action scenes. Oz: The Great and Powerful did it in addition to changing from grayscale to colour, when grayscale to colour would be enough on its own. The only movie I’ve heard of where it works is in Disney’s animated/live action hybrid, Enchanted. There it works because a lot of the older animated movies were done in full screen, so when the movie switches from the fairytale world to the live action real world, it works. Besides Enchanted, switching aspect ratios is not a stylistic choice that I’m a fan of. Not one bit. Pick one and stick with it.
But the other stylistic choice is much, much worse. Like I said in my Tarzan blog post, I don’t have anything against Phil Collins. When I heard he composed most of the songs for this movie, I shrugged. And like Tarzan, a lot of his songs play over where characters may sing instead, making the movie feel more like a fan created music video than an actual musical. Some people may like it that way, but I’m not a fan. But the major problem comes in when the confession scene arrives. Kenai sits the cub down in a secluded area and begins his confession as a story, to get the cub’s attention. As soon as he starts talking, Phil Collins takes over with a mildly sad song. It completely takes you out of what could have been by far the most emotional moment in the movie.
Worse yet, they recorded all the lines for the confession scene and line drew most of it. I’ve seen the deleted scene and it’s brilliantly written. And yet, they ruined it with a badly placed song performed by a musician who didn’t voice anyone in the movie. Bad choices like this really hold the movie back.
Despite the movie’s reduced budget, the animation is generally good. The environments are beautiful to look at, whether it’s a snowy mountaintop, all the streams running along, or all the forests spread throughout the movie. The character designs for both the animals and the humans are charming. There’s great use of body language for the bears, and there’s clearly a lot of effort put into researching their movements. This is actually the last of 3 movies primarily animated in MGM studios in the middle of Walt Disney World in Florida. After this point, Disney started shifting their focus toward CGI. Only three theatrically released Disney movies since were traditionally animated, and none of them did particularly well. I’ll get into more detail when we reach the last one, but I miss traditional animation.
Brother Bear had a brilliant concept and almost equally great setup. Unfortunately, a predictable story, bizarre creative decisions and slow action scenes really hold it back. I can see why some people may love this movie, but I can’t help but wonder what it could have been. I can clearly see how it could have been better if they avoided their bizarre decisions, and that’s why I can’t bring myself to like Brother Bear. It’s not terrible and by no means do I regret watching it, but it’s not worth recommending.
Next up is Home On the Range, and there is no animated Disney movie I’m dreading more than it. After that it’s Chicken Little, Disney Animation Studio’s first ever fully CGI movie, and then Meet The Robinsons. From what I’ve heard, Home on the Range and Chicken Little are the worst two, and then the movies start to improve with Meet The Robinsons. Either way, I’m scared of this coming week of Disney movies.