“This year, I watched my Mom in a life and death struggle against all odds, battling possibly the most fiercest creature on the face of the earth. Okay, who’s next? “ – Koda
Brother Bear, released in 2003, was originally scheduled to be the final Traditionally Animated film in the Disney Canon. However, due to problems in the Home on the Range production, Brother Bear was moved up to become the second to last. It was also the third and final film to be completely animated at then Disney-MGM Studios before the animation department was once again unified in California. Brother Bear takes inspiration from ancient North American tribes in both its setting and story, and joins the list of Disney films that deal with a natural setting.
Brother Bear relates the story of Kenai, a young tribesman who begins the film awaiting his receiving of his spirit totem. He receives the Bear of Love, much to his disappointment. When a bear steals all of the tribe’s freshly caught fish, Kenai goes after it in order to prove his manhood, and his two brothers, Denhai and Sitka, chase after him. In this hunt, Sitka perishes while attempting to save his brothers. Now feeling the need to prove himself a man even more than before, Kenai goes after the bear again, and this time kills it. The spirits punish this act by transforming Kenai into a bear. He is told by the tribe’s Shaman Grandmother that he needs to find the northern lights into order to have a chance to become human again. Along the way, he tags along with Koda, a young, chatty bear who has lost his mother, and Rutt and Tuke, moose brothers who constantly bicker, and they come together as they make their way to where “The Lights Touch the Earth.” They also must run from Denhai, who believes that Kenai is the bear that killed both of his brothers.
As with all of the most other Disney films dealing with nature, Brother Bear is gorgeous in setting. This beauty certainly is enhanced due to the film’s unique setting and its road trip type plot. With the characters having a ton of ground to cover in their journey, there are a lot of places to see, and with this northern mountain setting, there are points where it looks absolutely stunning. The film features a lot more geographical areas than the traditional forest of other Disney films. I love what animation can do with set pieces, and Brother Bear is certainly no slouch in that department.
Brother Bear does a great job in establishing its setting and its world. The film’s opening goes a long way in setting a tone for the film in both of these aspects. The opening of the film is one of the strongest parts, and it does wonders in establishing the culture of the tribe, the relationship between the three brothers, and the North American Setting. I really have to commend the film for how it builds the family relationship. For as little time the film is allowed to show the brothers together, I really feel the banter between them, and the emotions they share both with and about each other. It also helps build the entire rest of the film. This is a great example of why building a relationship matters in making a film good. Without that relationship, the film loses so much.
Of course, even with this strong relationship, the film would fail if its most important relationship, Kenai and Koda, failed. Luckily, the relationship works, for the most part. The two have personalities and goals that play off of each other really well for conflict, yet the fact that they have the ability to bond is very believable. It could be better, and I’ll mention how in a second, but it succeeds enough to make the film enjoyable and work.
I also have to commend the film in how it contrasts the pre-transformation world and the post-transformation world. The film begins with a more down-to-earth, realistic style in every aspect. As soon as Kenai transforms, however, the film gets more cartoony and brighter. It’s a very good and effective contrast. One of my favorite contrasts in the film is that the bears have black eyes until Kenai transforms, when they gain human looking eyes. I think that is an extremely cool detail.
Rutt and Tuke, the two moose, are the best source of comedy in the film, and are a very good duo. They have some funny moments, and I like how they actually end up effecting Koda and Kenai. They are one of the classic Disney Duos of the the past decade
Finally, while Phil Collins’s soundtrack for Brother Bear isn’t as strong as his Tarzan soundtrack, it still has plenty of good songs. Something about his style of music just works with the sequences throughout the film. His voice is especially suited for some of the film’s songs, though I like the fact that the singers are changed up for different songs.
I praised the contrast the film presents, but as good as it is, it also becomes a weakness by going a bit overboard with it. When the film turns cartoony, the film’s tone also shifts to a more cartoony style, which ultimately hurts the film. The film is much too comedy heavy in the second half, and the designs keep getting sillier and sillier, cumulative in the Salmon Run sequence, where the other bears take design cues from other Disney bears such as The Country Bears, Humphrey the Bear, and Bongo. It is way too overboard, and lessens the serious potential of the film. There are also many unnecessary sources of comedy, such as an extremely pointless sequence involving two Rams. I wanted the film to retain a bit of the realism and drama that defined the first act. This would have pushed the film into the classic category, rather than making it just great.
I also mentioned above how the Koda-Kenai relationship was mostly good. Where it trips up is in the middle of the film, where the relationship jumps between “Constantly at Odds” mode and “Brotherly Relationship” mode. While these scenes are good, it can be a bit jarring when one day Koda and Kenai can have a heartfelt discussion, and the morning after they explode at each other. The progression of the relationship has this out-of-order feeling, and gets muddled in the middle. The beginning and end of the relationship are, thankfully, much stronger.
And while I also like Koda, he does contribute a bit to the film’s shift to the over the top. He is a great contrast to Kenai, as mentioned above. However, I feel he is a little bit too chatty, too “annoying.” He certainly never becomes unlikable, but he does border on being a gimmick that you become a little too tired of. If he would have been toned down just a little bit, the character would have been more consistently enjoyable.
There is one moment where I dislike the placing of a song in the soundtrack. The song “No Way Out” begins during the dramatic scene in which Kenai reveals to Koda the truth about his mother, rather than start completely after. I feel this weakens the scene and cheapens the moment, when the song could have easily started a minute later, and the conversation could have included and actual, emotional conversation and true realization by Kenai.
The final fault I have with the film is that I feel that it glosses over a couple of key moments and ideas. I can somewhat forgive that the idea of spirits and its universality is a bit underexplored, as what we are given is just enough, but I do wish that the film featured a bit more of Kenai accepting his bearhood, both at the beginning when he first is transformed, and when he truly discovers Bear Society. The second one is the one I wanted to see most. I think there really needed to be more than just one song exploring Kenai accepting himself into this society, as it would be something that would help the last section of the film.
BEST MOMENT AND SONG
Out of all of the Phil Collins songs in the film, the one that resonates with me the most is “On My Way” a travel song. As it is presented in the film, it works very well with the sequence, and is a fun song.
The film’s best scene is Kenai’s second battle with the bear, and his tranformation. The bear battles in this film are strong, but this one takes the cake due mostly to what happens after the fight is over.
Ultimately, Brother Bear falls into the same category that Dinosaur did all the way back at 45. I like the film, and it does a lot right, but 34 is just the place it happens to fall. It has the strong relationships, great animation, and entertaining story to push it above many other films. However, it does feature some mistakes in having a too comedic tone and some slip ups in the pacing of relationships, that make it weaker than the films we have yet to talk about. I would have been more satisfied (though still upset) if this had actually been the last of the 2D films, and that is an accomplishment.