Disney Animated Features
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Release Date: 1 November 2003
Brother Bear is a sweet, lightly humorous message film very much in the vein of Pocahontas. It gets a bit heavy-handed at times, but has enough strong points to earn a mild recommendation.
The film is set somewhere in the northwestern part of pre-Columbian North America. Alaska, the Yukon, or British Columbia, most likely. The natives are surrounded by coniferous forest and large bodies of water; they often view the northern lights; and the local wildlife includes bears and moose.
As the film opens, an older man is relating a story to a group of youngsters. The man turns out to be Denahi, the middle of three brothers we meet in flashback. His older brother Sitka is wise and a strong leader, who is constantly having to moderate between Denahi and Kenai (the youngest), who love to pick on each other. The brothers are very close, though, and it's clear they would do anything for each other.
Kenai, though, is a bit irresponsible and very prideful. This is the time of his coming of age, and he is set to learn from the tribe's shamaness which animal totem will be his guide for the rest of his life. To his great embarrassment, he receives the totem of the bear, which represents love.
Through a series of mishaps and misunderstandings, Sitka is soon killed by a large bear. Kenai sets out to avenge his brother's death, with Denahi following behind. Eventually, high on a mountaintop, Kenai succeeds in killing the bear, but a strange transformation overtakes him. When the dust settles he finds that he's become a bear himself.
Denahi, who comes upon the scene and sees only a bear and no Kenai, now believes both of his brothers to have been killed by bears, and Kenai is forced to run from his brother's desire for revenge. He escapes into the forest, where he meets young Koda, a bear cub who has been separated from his mother.
His hatred for bears causes him to scorn the cub, but Koda is relentless and latches on, not realizing his new friend is really one of the scary "monsters" that carry spears and hunt wildlife. As Koda and Kenai journey together to find that which they have lost, Kenai begins to realize that his fate may be unavoidably intertwined with that of Koda, and that perhaps his big brother Sitka is still watching over him...
At this point, I now must mention Rutt and Tuke. Rutt and Tuke are moose. Canadian moose. Canadian moose voiced by Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas. Canadian moose that sound suspiciously like Bob and Doug McKenzie. I don't know who was responsible for this bit of casting, but it's sheer genius. Nothing is more amusingly Canadian than Moranis and Thomas doing their McKenzie Brothers schtick, and to animate them in the form of moose is sublime. While they don't approach the uproarious levels of, say, Robin Williams in Aladdin, they provide a much-needed dose of humor in this otherwise moralistic film.
Other than Moranis and Thomas, the only notable voice actor is Joaquin Phoenix as Kenai.
The music for this film was written by Tarzan composer Phil Collins. The songs are mostly instrumentals -- no characters breaking into song here. The music is decent but nothing spectacular.
At awards time, Brother Bear was nominated for the Best Animated Feature Oscar, but lost to the very deserving Finding Nemo (The Triplets of Belleville was the third nominee). It was also nominated for several Annie awards, but won none.
While it was a decent effort by the Disney team, Brother Bear is unfortunately just not a great film. Its relative mediocrity (and recent box office failures) seems to have sealed the fate of Disney's traditional feature animation, with executives apparently believing that the declining revenues were due more to audience disenchantment with the medium rather than declining quality of the films.
But first, one last traditionally animated film, bringing back Alan Menken to the Disney keyboard...
Information for the Disney Animated Features series of nodes comes from the IMDb (www.imdb.com), Frank's Disney Page (http://www.fpx.de/fp/Disney/), and the dark recesses of my own memory.