The short version of my thoughts on this film is that it’s an entirely competent work with solid animation and a decent, if not so memorable, story.
The long version is this:
Brother Bear is a late entry in Disney’s traditionally animated oeuvre. It released the same year as Finding Nemo, which is an infinitely more memorable film. This was an issue that many of Disney’s later animated films ran into during the late ’90s and early 2000s when Pixar was having its heyday, because Pixar’s stuff in the decade following the release of Toy Story was critical and commercial gold.
The basic plot goes like this: Kenai and his two older brothers Sitka and Denahi are young men in an Inuit tribe living in North America following the last ice age. Kenai is about to come of age within his tribe and is awaiting the rite of passage where he’ll receive his spirit totem from the tribe’s wise woman, who has just returned from the top of the nearby mountain where she has been communing with the spirits. Kenai’s is presented with the bear of love, which he thinks is inappropriate because he hates bears and thinks that they’re no better than thieves. Due to Kenai’s carelessness, a bear wanders into his tribe’s camp and takes some salmon that the brothers brought back from their recent excursion. The brothers follow the bear to retrieve the basket that Denahi, the middle brother, made to hold the fish, and they find that it’s been destroyed. Kenai goes on to kill the bear, but after a fight atop a glacier, Kenai finds himself cornered by the bear. Sitka, the eldest brother, sacrifices himself to save his brothers by splitting off a piece of the glacier with him and the bear atop it. The bear survives, and Kenai decides to pursue and kill the bear as revenge for Sitka’s death, eventually succeeding. After he kills the bear, the spirits transform him into a bear so that he can learn some empathy, and then he goes on a series of misadventures on his way to find the place where the light touches the earth. In the course of his journey, he meets a young grizzly cub named Koda who he eventually learns is the cub of the bear that he killed. Kenai finally learns empathy and the spirits transform him back into a human, but he decides to remain a bear so that he can stay with Koda, who has become like his brother.
Okay, so the story’s a pretty typical Freaky Friday type situation, but with talking animals in place of annoying mothers. Kenai’s a sympathetic enough protagonist, and his character arc is satisfying. Beyond that, this isn’t a terribly interesting film either in terms of its problems or its successes.
Perhaps the most problematic aspect of the film is the fact that it has no women. Our only female characters are the old wise woman Tanana (she’s really only around for three scenes) and Koda’s mother (who dies early in the film before we ever actually get to know anything about her). Both are hardly presences in the film, with the heavy lifting of Kenai’s spiritual guidance falling on the shoulders of his dead brother Sitka (whose totem is the eagle of guidance, so I guess that role’s kind of a given). Koda’s mother probably qualifies best as a bear in a refrigerator, because her death is used as a catalyst for Kenai’s own development, but she’s just not well fleshed out (perhaps a case could be made for the fact that this is a story about Kenai learning to empathize and that Koda’s mother being obscured highlights the loss of opportunity that comes with being careless in one’s decision-making; on the other hand, it’s really overdone to use a dead mother for the sake of character development). Maybe the lack of female characters wouldn’t be so bad, considering this is a film that’s very interested in exploring ideas of adult masculinity and male relationships, but I just can’t let go of the lazy use of the dead mother.
In terms of music, this film’s just bland. I watched this movie a couple days after The Little Mermaid, and the contrast between the two films’ music is huge. Menken and Ashman’s songs are a big part of what makes the early ’90s Disney movies so memorable, and Brother Bear, which comes from the era when Disney was moving away from traditional musicals to more of an emphasis on musical montages (this trend really began with Tarzan, which is notable for being the first time that Disney got Phil Collins to do the soundtrack for one of their movies; Brother Bear was the second). Since I have a deep fondness for musicals, I’m not very well disposed towards this style of musical storytelling (also, Phil Collins is just a really bland artist). I know that musicals can be ridiculous if you think too hard about the fact that characters are expressing their thoughts and feelings in spontaneous song, but it’s a kind of ridiculousness that I can get behind (usually it’s more interesting to watch than a montage too).
On the bright side, Brother Bear is a film that left me with pretty much no ill feelings towards Disney for turning an ethnic group into a caricature of itself (I still haven’t forgiven you, Pocahontas). The Inuit depicted in the movie aren’t mysticized or idealized, but represented as just people living their lives. Perhaps it helps that Disney didn’t have any white characters that they felt the need to contrast.
There’s probably good reason that Disney’s focus shifted towards computer animation not too long after this movie was released, but as far as traditionally animated movies go, it’s a solid one. It’s just not terribly memorable in any way.