Brother Bear is a terribly frustrating film, and it frustrates on many levels. Fans of traditional animation who know that the fate of Disney’s 2D unit is riding on its performance will watch it with a sinking heart — there is no way this film is going to be the next Finding Nemo. That’s not the fault of the traditional animation, though, and Disney chieftains Eisner and Stainton are in for a rude surprise if they think otherwise. That’s another frustration — since they can’t seem to figure out that their problems have stemmed from bad stories, not the traditional medium, one fears that Disney is just going to wind up pouring bad wine into new bottles.
Certainly there’s nothing wrong with Disney’s traditional artistry: The animation work in Brother Bear is as spectacular as one would expect from the wealthiest animation studio on Earth. Rich colors, endlessly beautiful landscapes, and flawless character animation is to be expected, though I must confess to being more intrigued by the “realistic” bear look than the more cartoony aura sported by Kenai and Koda, the two lead “bear” characters here.
Brother Bear Story
No, it’s in the story department that Brother Bear fails. Here’s the set-up: Three Native American brothers get into a fight with an adult bear which the youngest, Kenai, had provoked, and the oldest brother sacrifices his life to save the other two. Kenai, blaming the bear for his brother’s death, hunts the bear down and kills it, but is then himself transformed into a bear. He then has to go off to find whatever spirits can change him back, all while (a) taking care of Koda, a small bear cub who has been separated from his mother and (b) dodging his other brother (the middle one) who, thinking his brother-bear is a bear that killed his younger brother, is hunting down… Well, trust me. It makes some sort of sense while you’re watching it, even though, as I’ve summarized it, it sounds like a five-door bedroom farce with people jumping in and out of their clothes.
Such a farce might have made for an entertaining story — and Brother Bear drops in some really gratuitous comic relief, about which more in a minute — but this film plays it entirely straight. More than straight; it’s downright dark. Because, see, (run away now if you really don’t like spoilers), it turns out that Koda, with whom Kenai has bonded, is the cub of the mother bear that Kenai killed. In other words, Kenai discovers that he’s basically adopted the kid that he orphaned.
This is an interesting idea, and would make for a much darker and more complex conflict that we usually get in an animated film, and it’s one definitely worth exploring — were it stretched and developed to its fullest, it would make for very harrowing and emotional cinema. Such a situation could only be resolved through open emotional struggle, and it might not end with smiles all around.
Does It Hold Up?
But the film cheats, not only dramatically, but as an entertainment experience for children and their parents. It’s not the kind of plot point that a kid is going to enjoy (we all remember Bambi, don’t we?), and has to be handled tastefully and intelligently. But the filmmakers seem daunted by the near-impossibility of telling a child’s story that centers on this idea and instead pussyfoot around those spots that might honestly deal with such raw emotion. At one point, for instance, Kenai sits Koda down and starts to explain what he did, but then his voice fades out and a sappy Collins song fades in, thus denying us the central conversation and confrontation — the scene that the film is entirely about. And if that weren’t bad enough, just think about whose lap it falls into when the film refuses to tackle the issue that it has raised. The children in the audience who pick up on the fact that something bad is going down in that film but who will not know what it is will have to get their mothers or fathers to tell them. Imagine the agony of a parent trying to tell their son or daughter how the hero of the film killed the mommy of the little bear boy.
Brother Bear is also reluctant to sustain the serious tone that its underlying dramatic undercurrent requires, and introduces comedic elements that do not so much relieve the tension as they simply hide or cover it up. Rutt and Tuke, for instance, two oddball moose, are two of the most unnecessary comic relief characters I’ve ever seen, having no real input in the story and very little effective humor to them. Leave aside the highly dated material which they are borrowing — Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas’ Mackenzie Brothers characters are over twenty years old now — the film’s tendency for the film to reduce both animals and Native Americans to the worst kind of suburbanite cliche is especially annoying. For a film about tolerance and responsibility, some respect towards its setting would’ve been quite appropriate.
Nor does Phil Collins’ music work. His previous score for Disney, for Tarzan, worked because his natural songwriting style simulated the sounds of a jungle — Collins, being a percussionist, always had that jungle-esque feel to his work. Here, though, his sensibilities do not mesh with the material, and the resulting songs are far more syrupy sweet than is necessary, and none are all that memorable.
For me, Brother Bear makes clear that there are lines that the standard Disney formula cannot cross. It’s amazing how far that formula has come and how well it’s been able to deal with things like death, acceptance, power, and even religion. But murder and its aftermath of guilt seems to be beyond the formula’s capacities — it just isn’t the kind of thing to force on a captive audience of children. Brother Bear yearns to be a story for adults, told to adults. Here, then, is the final frustration: Disney’s seeming inability to reach new audiences may, at one stroke, have doomed both this film and its own storied animation department. In trying to straddle both audiences, it will probably lose both: It’s far too immature for adults in its current form, and too mature for kids in any form.