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Alex Stroup, editor

Brother Bear

Disney unveils its newest animated feature

Thursday, October 30, 2003
by Alex Stroup, staff writer

There's a great weight of expectation sitting on the shoulders of a bear.

For fans of traditionally animated movies, the great hope must be that Brother Bear do very well indeed. For that may be the only chance to reverse the current trend by Disney of moving away from such films, circling instead into the whirlpool of computer animation and the perceived wealth to be found there.

If Brother Bear doesn't do boffo box office, then the success of last year's Lilo & Stitch will certainly be forgotten and another nail will have been driven into the coffin. Many will cry that the method of animation doesn't matter, it is the story that drives the box office. And critics will respond that this is exactly right, that for most of the last decade, Disney's Feature Animation has mostly been churning out formula films and relying on Pixar to keep the appearance of Disney creativity alive—and if Disney can't do it well, maybe it should leave the arena for a while.

So, there's a lot on the line this weekend. And Disney probably hasn't helped anything by shaving a day off its opening weekend to avoid competing with Halloween.

Just like in the real world, Brother Bear's Kenai (Joaquin Phoenix) is under the strain of great expectations. Except he is the source of them. As a young adult in an Ice Age Indian tribe, he is struggling towards adulthood, both ignorant of what that means, and certain he has it all figured out. But of course he doesn't, and quickly his lingering childishness leads to disaster, including the death of a bear.

©Buena Vista Pictures Distribution. All rights reserved.

The spirits that this tribe hold dear inhabit the aurora borealis, and after Kenai wrongfully kills this bear, they decide that it is time to straighten him out. In such situations, gods and spirits never just appear before you and say, “Yo, that was lame.” No, they have to get all ironic and allegorical. Thus, Kenai finds himself turned into a bear, suddenly able to communicate with the other forest creatures. Unfortunately, he can no longer communicate with people, and his brother Denahi (Jason Raize) thinks Kenai has been killed by a bear. Just try and guess on which bear Denahi vows revenge.

The Disney “Formula for Boys” is starting to fall into place, and soon enough the cute sidekick, a young cub name Koda (Jeremy Suarez) is on hand to round out the picture. And as if the sidekick weren't enough comic relief, we are soon assaulted by the comic stylings of two stupid mooses (Dave Thomas and Rick Moranis, doing their Bob and Doug Mackenzie act from 25 years ago). Actually, they're just fine, except that they have absolutely no role in the movie. They just wander in and out of scenes saying funny things.

This isn't the only sign that the film might have needed a surer hand at the helm than first-time directors Aaron Blaise and Robert Walker. More confident directors might have reserved Bob and Doug for a few relevant scenes and then shuttled them off to the closing credits. Blaise and Walker also allowed the strange decision to use a very realistic animation style for the bear that is killed, and then throw us into a more cartoony world for every other bear in the movie.

But the worst decision of all was in bringing Phil Collins back for an encore to his Tarzan soundtrack. Now, in my view, Collins almost ruined Tarzan—not so much because the music was bad, but it all seemed to be exactly the same. This time, it is the other way around.

There are three musical montages—way too many for an 85-minute movie—and they are all identifiably unique. And they are all identifiably terrible, reaching a peak when a particuarly glurgy song is combined with the most ridiculous montage of a pastoral community of bears at a salmon run. The sappiness in those three minutes almost forced me to avert my eyes and cover my ears.

©Buena Vista Pictures Distribution. All rights reserved.

Brother Bear isn't a bad movie. In the recent trend of trying to attract young boys, it is about on par with Treasure Planet, and better than Atlantis (though nowhere near the quality of The Emperor's New Groove). But it is saddled with a distinct schizophrenic feel as it starts with a pretty good (and somewhat intense for the younger children) dramatic tone. Once Kenai has been transformed, though, it shifts almost completely over to slapstick, except for the occasional appearance of Denahi trying to kill Kenai.

In the final analysis, I just don't see this movie bearing (absolutely intended, but the only one in the whole review) the strain of its expectations. It is a competent effort—and we don't want competent from Disney. Brother Bear contains all the elements that have made for success in the past, but doesn't do anything original with them.

While it is doubtful that Disney will ever entirely abandon hand-drawn feature animation completely (even if it is mostly coming out of the TV animation division), maybe it is time for Disney to pull back from feature animation altogether until a creative core can be rediscovered. It wouldn't be the first time: Disney once went 22 years between creating an animated classic (Jungle Book in 1967 until The Little Mermaid in 1989), and during those 22 years they only produced eight feature-length animated films. Compare that to the 16 films created since 1989 and it is little wonder that the creative batteries are running low.

Brother Bear is perfectly good entertainment, though, for the under-10 crowd, and would probably make a very good family trip to the theater this weekend (unless they're still on a sugar high from Halloween). Watch out, though, for the Home on the Range trailer. It contains what may be the first boob joke in the history of Feature Animation.


Brother Bear is a Walt Disney Pictures release

Wide theatrical release: Nov 1, 2003

Directed by Aaron Blaise and Robert Walker.
Screenplay by too many people

Rated G

Running time: 85 minutes

Alex's Rating: 5 out of 10


Alex Stroup is a degreed librarian with an undergraduate degree in history. An avid reader, movie buff, and devoted “information junkie,” Alex currently lives and works in the Northern California Bay Area. Alex is also the CEO of MousePlanet.

Click here to contact Alex.


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