THE HOUSE OF MOUSE PROJECT – ‘Brother Bear’

The one that arrived a decade too late.

After the death of Walt Disney in 1966, the Disney studio found itself desperately attempting to find a winning formula to continue creating successful animated films without their fearless leader. When The Aristocats proved to be a surprise smash hit in 1970, the studio felt they’d uncovered the secret to success; talking animals. For the next two decades, the studio would almost exclusively focus on releasing animated films starring a menagerie of adorable animals.

Despite the staggering success of The Lion King, it was a formula Disney had mostly strayed from in the 1990s, choosing instead to craft more serious human-centric stories with the occasional talking animal thrown in as a comedic sidekick. But as the box office results of Disney animated films began to tumble, then-CEO Michael Eisner pushed his creative team to craft another animal-centric project in an attempt to echo the huge profits (and merchandise dollars) of Simba and co.

Inspired by a 19th-century Albert Bierstadt landscape painting of the untouched American West the CEO had recently purchased, Eisner suggested a North American backdrop, with the star of the film to be a grizzly bear. The initial idea was to loosely base the film on William Shakespeare’s King Lear, with the film centring on an old blind bear who journeyed through the forest with his three daughters.

In late 1997, veteran animator Aaron Blaise learned of the project and asked then-president of Walt Disney Feature Animation Thomas Schumacher if he could direct the film with his fellow animator Robert Walker. Blaise was a highly respected animator at the studio and Schumacher felt he could make a great director. However, Blaise wasn’t a fan of the plans for a King Lear adaptation and wrote his own two-page treatment with producer Chuck Williams, which now stood as a father-son story in which the son is magically transformed into a bear, inspired by Native American transformation myths.

After reading the revised story, Schumacher immediately approved the project to enter development and proclaimed, “This is the idea of the century.” Schumacher selected perennial Disney screenwriter Tab Murphy to write the film’s draft script under the working title Bears and assigned the entire project to Walt Disney Animation Florida. While the division was responsible for the entire animation of Mulan and Lilo & Stitch, this would mark the very first (and last) time the Orlando-based division created an animated feature from its very inception.

When Bears was officially greenlit in 1999, Blaise, Walker, and key members of the animation team embarked on an extensive research trip to Alaska, which had been chosen as the film’s setting. The team visited the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes, Kodiak Island, and the glaciers of Denali National Park, and the Kenai Fjords National Park. The co-directors were so inspired by the majesty of the latter location, they chose to name their protagonist Kenai.

The team also took additional research trips through Montana’s Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming’s Grand Teton, and California’s Sequoia National Park for further inspiration for the film’s background animation. While Bears would technically be set in Alaska, Blaise wanted his animation team to craft imagery from various locations of North America to create one “idealistic” view that captured the sheer vastness of the entire country and featured “the best of everything.”

By the year 2000, the story of Bears now featured a new older bear character named Grizz, who took Kenai under his wing and guided the transformed human along his journey. The role was offered to Michael Clarke Duncan, who attended the studio for preliminary test recordings, while Grizz’s initial character designs mirrored Duncan’s huge stature in the form of an imposing black bear with a heart of gold.

While Duncan’s performance was working well, Blaise felt Kenai’s journey would prove more endearing if the roles were reversed and Kenai was the mentor to an adorable bear cub named Koda. This adjustment ultimately reworked the entire storyline of the film, with the character of Kenai’s father eliminated and the plot now focusing more closely on the notion of brotherhood, both between Kenai and pseudo-brother Koda and Kenai and his two human brothers, Sitka and Denahi. As such, the film was soon retitled Brother Bear.

For the role of Kenai, the filmmakers auditioned over 100 actors in a bid to find a performer with the right voice qualities to capture the character’s vulnerability. But the role was proving difficult to cast, especially given Kenai stood as both the film’s hero and pseudo-villain and needed to earn an audiences’ sympathy even in the midst of some terrible character choices. After seeing Joaquin Phoenix’s complex performance in Gladiator, Blaise felt they had found their Kenai.

But Blaise assumed Phoenix would never accept the role, particularly after the actor received a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for his performance as the nefarious Commodus. Much to the entire team’s surprise, Phoenix lept at the opportunity and immediately signed on to the project. In a later interview, Phoenix exclaimed, “Oh, forget the Oscar nomination. The real pinnacle is that I’m playing an animated character in a Disney film. Isn’t that just the greatest?”

For the role of Koda, the team chose to listen to rejected audition tapes for the role of Nemo in Pixar’s upcoming production, Finding Nemo. It was here they discovered 11-year-old Jeremy Suarez and fell in love with his unbridled energy and playful attitude. As was Disney tradition, the filmmakers crafted two comedic sidekick characters in a pair of goofy moose brothers named Rutt and Tuke, who were voiced by Canadian comedians Dave Thomas and Rick Moranis.

While Phoenix and Suarez recorded their parts separately, Thomas and Moranis insisted on performing their voiceover work together, allowing the duo to improvise dialogue and play off each other in a live setting. The filmmakers were so impressed by Duncan’s initial work as the now-defunct Grizz, they purposely created a new character for Duncan to voice, with the actor taking the role of Tug, a wise old grizzly bear, who plays a key role in helping Kenai understand the mistakes of his past.

For the film’s visual aesthetic, art director Robh Ruppel wanted to craft a naturalistic look for the film with the use of realistic light sources for each scene. The artist was influenced by the work of 19th-century painter Albert Bierstadt, who specialised in illustrating North American scenery, particularly his famous works immortalising the Rocky Mountains and Yosemite National Park. Bierstadt’s work was known for its sense of romanticism and his dramatic use of light effects, which Ruppel keenly instilled in the designs of Brother Bear.

The background animation was heavily inspired by those found in Bambi, with the animation team closely studying the animation cels of the Disney animated feature from within the studio archives. Background supervisor Barry Kooser created a style similar to that of an oil painting, with visible brushstrokes and evocative colours. Kooser and his team ventured to Jackson Hole, Wyoming to study with landscape painter Scott Christensen, who taught the group how to simplify objects by defining the spatial dimensions first and working in the detail later.

The team were also influenced by the impressionistic work of Xiangyuan (Jay) Jie, who had been a background artist on films like Lilo & Stitch and Mulan. After spotting Jie’s work hanging in the Disney hallways, Blaise encouraged his team to “paint like Jie.” In total, eighteen animators created over 800 backgrounds ranging in size from a twelve-inch field to dynamic vistas measuring two-feet high by four feet long. The traditional animation was complemented by computer-generated imagery, particularly to craft a roaring caribou stampede and the freneticism of salmon rushing upstream.

To assist with the realistic creation of the film’s large assortment of animal characters, the filmmakers arranged for a menagerie of creatures to visit the studio for the animators to closely study and use as a reference for their character designs. These included a pair of bear cubs, whose playful behaviour provided great inspiration for the character of Koda. An array of special guest lecturers also attended the studios to present key facts and information on the animals’ movements and behaviours, including bear researcher and preservationist Timothy Treadwell, who provided intimate firsthand accounts and insights into the world of bears.

In a curious and innovative move, Blaise and Walker made the artistic decision to begin the film in the standard Academy 1.85:1 ratio before expanding to widescreen Cinemascope at the point of Kenai’s transformation into a bear. The ratio shift was crafted to symbolise Kenai’s dramatic metamorphosis and represent his changing view of the world. To further this transformation, the colour palette also changed with the ratio switch and moved towards brighter, more fanciful colours to juxtapose against the film’s earlier more muted tones.

The filmmakers hoped the drastic change would be akin to The Wizard of Oz switching from sepia tone to colour when Dorothy first arrives in Oz. It also allowed the animators with a larger scope to craft the background animation, allowing the film to truly capture the vastness of the Alaskan wilderness. Brother Bear would be the first major film to feature a ratio change since The Horse Whisperer in 1998 and the first animated film in history to feature this dramatic technique.

After the staggering success of the Tarzan soundtrack, singer/songwriter Phil Collins was invited back to Disney and offered the opportunity to compose new songs for Brother Bear. Much like Tarzan, the film would not be a traditional Disney musical, but rather feature music in the background to compliment the narrative. Much to Collins’ disappointment, Blaise and Walker did not wish to have the singer perform all the songs himself, with the filmmakers wanting to avoid immediate comparisons with Tarzan.

While Collins wrote seven new songs for the film and co-wrote the score with composer Mark Mancina, he only performed solo on four of the tracks, with Tina Turner taking vocal duties on the film’s stirring opening number “Great Spirits,” and the Blind Boys of Alabama recording the playful number “Welcome.” To underscore Kenai’s metamorphosis into a bear, Collins wrote the track “Transformation” in English before it was translated into the Inuit Eskimo language and performed by the Bulgarian Women’s Choir.

Brother Bear was released on November 1, 2003, to relatively mixed reviews from critics. Robert Ebert felt Brother Bear didn’t “have the zowie factor of The Lion King” but still complimented the film for “working on completely different levels” for children and adults, while USA Today praised the film for its “message of tolerance and respect for nature.” However, Variety deemed the film “a very mild animated entry from Disney with a distinctly recycled feel,” while The Los Angeles Times criticised the film’s “lack of a fresh dramatic approach” and felt the narrative was “difficult to embrace as much as we’d like to.”

At the U.S. box office, Brother Bear grossed just over $85 million during its theatrical run, with a further $164 million earned internationally for a respectable worldwide total of $150 million. With a production budget of just $46 million, Brother Bear was one of the most profitable Disney animated releases of this era. However, the film’s success was completely overshadowed by the staggering success of another 2003 animated film, Finding Nemo, which grossed $871 million worldwide and became the highest-grossing animated film in history. As expected, Finding Nemo also beat Brother Bear at the 76th Academy Awards, where both films were nominated for Best Animated Feature.

As time as progressed, Brother Bear has mostly been forgotten, particularly by the unfortunate virtue of the film being released just six months after one of the biggest animated films of all time. Much like every traditional animated film of this era, Brother Bear arrived in a cinema landscape that had all but moved on from this style of animation. While animated films from the likes of Pixar and DreamWorks were pushing the genre into new territory, Brother Bear felt like little more than a relic of the past.

It doesn’t help the narrative and themes of Brother Bear genuinely feel like a retread of many Disney animated films of the years gone by. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this film, but it doesn’t exactly challenge anything Disney hadn’t already tackled numerous times previously. Even with the interesting ratio change switcheroo technique, nothing here feels particularly groundbreaking or fresh. At its core, Brother Bear is a terribly generic film.

That being said, Brother Bear is still a surprisingly enjoyable little film. While it may not push the boundaries of animated cinema, it still provides enough heart and soul to create a charming experience that’s surprisingly rewatchable. The film’s message of conservation and animal rights is as subtle as a sledgehammer, but it’s a pertinent reminder of the majesty beauty of nature and our need to preserve it. And the theme of brotherhood is entirely endearing, with Kenai and Koda standing as a dynamic duo who perfectly complement one another.

It’s still genuinely shocking the now-deadly serious Phoenix ever performed the task of Disney voiceover artist, but he provides one of the liveliest performances of his career and perfectly conveys the complex emotions of a teenager crippled by grief and pain. Suarez is a total delight, as are Thomas and Moranis as the two dimwitted moose. The film features the occasional moment of animated beauty, particularly the transformation sequences involving a dazzling display of Alaska’s northern lights. And, personally, I much prefer Collins work here over his compositions for the soundtrack of Tarzan.

While it may not stand as one of the greatest Disney animated films of all time, Brother Bear is charming enough to maintain your attention and features plenty of warmth to capture your heart. After their historically-inaccurate work on Pocahontas, it was pleasing to see Disney attempt something more deeply rooted in Native American culture, even if they couldn’t quite bring themselves to cast an actual Native American in the lead role. Brother Bear has sadly mostly faded into obscurity, but perhaps it’s worth a second look, especially if you haven’t seen the film since 2003.

Is Brother Bear a Disney Classic? Brother Bear doesn’t deserve the bizarre drubbing it constantly receives. It’s no masterpiece, but it’s far from the worst animated film Disney ever pumped out. If the film had arrived a decade earlier, it would have felt like a breath of fresh air. As it stands, it’s little more than a passive attempt to recycle the past and far from a true Disney Classic.

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