September 15, 2016
Brother Bear – US, 2003
Were it not for my less than stellar impression of The Great Mouse Detective, I’d be able to proclaim Brother Bear my least favorite Disney animated film. Brother Bear is a film with a plot so unsettling and creepy that I spent most of the film with a rather queasy feeling in my stomach and thoughts of incredulity running through my head. It was somewhat reminiscent of the sheer astonishment I felt watching Brave. That, some of you will remember, was the film in which a woman changes her mother into a bear and then has to stop her father from hunting her. Believe it or not, that pales in comparison to what we get in the wholly unoriginal Brother Bear.
The film is set in the forests of Canada. There we are introduced to three Inuit brothers, who have a special bond. How do we know? Well, in what will become an unfortunate trend in the film, a song tells us. And by song I don’t mean your standard, everyday Disney musical number – you know, the kind in which an animated character will break into song and reveal a little of his or her character. No, here we get Tina Turner belting out “Great Spirits,” which reveals to us that they’re brothers and they’re always there for each other. In truth, we could tell that the first time we saw them rough housing and evading a parade of stampeding elk. Unfortunately, the song is the first of this sort, and from here on in, the songs serve as the film’s lazy intermittent narrator, telling us what we are already able to see and doing it to the point of ad nauseam.
The youngest of the brothers is named Kenai (voiced by Joaquin Phoenix), and like many other films of this sort, Kenai is just about to take part in a ceremony that will reveal to him his spirit animal. It’s not hard to guess that he won’t like it or that whatever quest he ends up on will lead to his embracing of the very quality that he at first rejects. But before he starts his journey, he must first embrace darkness because apparently nothing sets a character in a kids film on the path of self-discovery quite like death, obsession, and killing. Here, Kenai rejects his spirit animal and its pacifist characteristics and sets off to kill the bear that caused the death of one of his brothers – at which point I wondered, “Are there any Disney films in which someone doesn’t die or get killed?”
The journey takes Kenai high up on a mountain, where the spirit of his deceased brother decides to teach him a lesson in humility by turning him into a bear. This is of course after he has killed the bear that he blames for his brother’s death , and because he is now a bear, he is in danger of being killed by his other brother because… oh never mind. You get the point.
The film tried to make up for its bleak and morbid undertone by turning on the comedy. To do this, it enlists Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas, here essentially playing animated versions of their iconic characters from 1983’s Strange Brew. Here’s the problem, though. They’re given nothing to work with other than tired yoga jokes, frequent jabs at each other for being lazy, and a tired scene in which they play “I-spy” on the backs of large mammoths. Their scenes are much less fun than they should be. Only a bear cub named Koda, voiced by Jeremy Suarez, brings energy to the film. However, the character is nothing we haven’t seen before, and his big reveal seems more like an act of desperation on the screenwriter’s part than a spark of creativity. It also ramps up the “ick” factor, already in great abundance.
Brother Bear was directed by Aaron Blaise and Robert Walker, and to their credit, they get some things right. There are scenes of stunning natural beauty and spectacular cave drawings, and the film’s depiction of the Northern Lights as a realm in which both deceased animals and humans roam freely is quite an interesting concept. I’m just not sure anyone involved in the film knew what to do with this idea beyond the obvious. Perhaps they should not be blamed, though. According to IMDB, twenty-five people are credited with writing at least some part of the film, and you know that old saying about cooks and the kitchen. Well, it applies to screenwriters and films as well. (on DVD and Blu-ray)