No. Just No.
Not since “The Black Cauldron” have I seen a Disney movie so confused and lost in what it was meant to be. Granted, this is still no “The Black Cauldron”, but the problems that plague it are nearly as numerous and make the entire experience everything from baffling to downright frustrating.
The story is set in post-ice age North America, following the young Kenai (Joaquin Phoenix), an Inuit who is coming of age. He lives with his two older brothers, Sitka and Denahi, the latter he quarrels with all the time. Early on we learn that he doesn’t respect bears. Remember that because it’s important. At his manhood ceremony, he is given the totem for “love”, which happens to be a bear (make whatever sense of that you will). Anyway, because of his laziness, the salmon basket was stolen by a bear and he rushes off like an idiot to retrieve it. This results in his oldest brother Sitka’s death, but not the bear’s. So again, like an idiot, Kenai rushes off to get revenge on the bear. He does, and then it all goes south.
Now at this point in the synopsis I want to establish that this first part of the movie is perfectly fine. There are established characters, a decent enough premise, and a young protagonist all set and ready to learn a lesson about revenge or acting based purely on his emotions. The instant his dead brother returns as a spirit eagle and transforms him into a bear for killing one, something goes terribly, terribly wrong.
The rest of this movie is just a mess of failed ideas and half-assed attempts at a coherent story. You can see the classic Disney-isms being tossed into the story like a drunk throwing darts. Not a one hits the mark. Let’s begin with the one thing about this movie that actually can be praised. The animation. “Brother Bear” is beautifully animated, featuring vast and colorful backgrounds with lots of detail. The lighting and shadows are handled nicely, giving everything in nature a lush vibrant feel. Even the humans, for what little we get of them, are nicely animated with expressive faces and personality. There’s an odd choice regarding the aspect ratio however, which changes once he transforms. I’m not sure why this was done unless…does he see better as a bear? It’s made more noticeable because the first fifteen minutes or so are all done with the smaller image. Just one of many odd choices that went into making this movie.
The problems are so many that it’s a wonder this script was ever approved. It feels like many people worked on it and none of them knew what the others were planning or writing. When Kenai becomes a bear, the entire movie changes with him. So much so that his only remaining brother, who’s now hunting him with the same vengeance he once had, is completely out of place. It’s like they decided to make a different movie altogether but this one character stumbled into it. The first of the talking animals we meet are these two unfunny moose who are reduced to dumb Canadian caricatures because…I don’t know. I suppose geographically speaking we’re in Canada. It still comes across as stupid and unnecessary. Every time they pop back up to do their routine, I can’t help but groan. It gets to a point where it hurts just seeing them.
Like most Disney animated features, the comedy and heart are usually carried by the supporting cast. Even when they’re funny or silly, there’s usually something to make them seem like genuine characters; someone to feel sorry for or root for when things get tough. In this case we get Koda (Jeremy Suarez), a bear cub who befriends Kenai. This character is a little obnoxious, but he’s not the worst of these I’ve encountered. However, he might be one of the most forced and simultaneously confused yet. The truth behind his separation from his mother is painfully obvious and reeks of manipulation.
Cute little happy-go-lucky kid who has to come to terms with his mother’s death? That right there is the main character for a separate movie. One like “The Land Before Time”, which handles it exceptionally well, or even “Bambi” for an example of Disney doing it better. Here he’s the sidekick, meaning the resolution of this plot point is not as important as the actual main character’s. Only the main character doesn’t really have one, so this is pushed aside for nothing. The scene where Kenai and Koda discuss this is downright awful, but I’ll get back to that in a bit.
You have to wonder what Kenai was supposed to learn from all this nonsense. What was the big lesson? To be honest, all I could get from it is this: Love Bears. That’s nice, I guess. I like bears. But “Loving Bears” isn’t really going to help me much in the future. The ending to this movie is certainly surprising, because it seems like the worst possible conclusion anyone could have arrived at for ending this story. There are plenty of ways to conclude the tale, most are lame but they at least make a certain kind of practical sense. “Brother Bear” chose the road less sane and just wrapped it up. There are dumb endings and then there’s this.
To make matters worse, Disney decided to repeat a past success with this movie, and that was bringing back Phil Collins. Big mistake. I already don’t like his music much, nor was I especially happy with the way it was handled in “Tarzan”, but they made it so much worse here. It’s not even that the songs are bad. They are, but that’s not even the issue. The songs just don’t belong. Not ever. Each time one of them creeps into the story, it feels intrusive, like whatever was happening has to stop in order for Phil Collins to belt one out. For the most part these sequences take the form of a montage, so nobody onscreen is singing along. They feel like padding, or just something to pass the time because there’s nothing in the script for the characters to do or say. They’re all so awkwardly done that in one instance, the heartfelt confession between Kenai and Koda is told through Phil Collins singing about something completely unrelated. I honestly have no idea what Kenai told that dumb little bear, but I imagine it wasn’t the full truth.
“Brother Bear” is among Disney’s very worst, ruining the basics of what could have been a decent premise. It was there at the beginning, but waved goodbye as soon as the animals began to speak. Honestly, there was probably no saving it. Whoever was in charge should have taken a good hard look at the script, perhaps even read it, and said, “No. We should probably work on this again. None of this makes any sense.”