Brother Bear was supposed to be The Lion King of North America. Instead it ended up being one of the more forgotten Walt Disney animated films. The forty-fourth feature was in fact made as a response to the need for more animal stories after the success of The Lion King. Since bears are the kings of the forest, an original bear movie was made. It just went through many story changes before the brother theme was chosen. Along with a focus on Inuit culture in the greater Alaskan region. Although Brother Bear seems like a downgrade, Disney needed something smaller after the financial failure of Treasure Planet. Animation is predominantly traditional with only a few computer enhancements here and there. Specifically a wildebeest style caribou stampede and a salmon stream. Brother Bear did a lot to bring back a Renaissance feel, including the second use of Phil Collins music after Tarzan. I love “On My Way,” but most songs aren’t memorable.
Brother Bear itself never feels like anything special by Disney standards. I didn’t even see the movie in theaters, because it didn’t feel warranted. My brother and I saw it on video shortly after when I was still about 8 years old. True we could relate to the brotherly story, but I still wouldn’t call it completely underrated. The lukewarm reception isn’t entirely off, although it was nominated for Best Animated Feature. Brother Bear is set after the Ice Age. Centering on a trio of Inuit brothers including older brother Sitka, middle brother Denahi, and younger brother Kenai. The unlikely voice of Joaquin Phoenix portrays Kenai. A foolhardy young tribesman hoping to receive an honorable totem from his village’s shamen woman. Instead he receives the bear of love. The quasi-mysticism doesn’t make a lot of sense, but it is what turns Kenai into a bear. After he vengefully kills a bear that he blames for the death of Sitka. The great spirits of the Northern Lights transform Kenai and the aspect ratio changes to widescreen.
As a bear, Kenai must learn a lesson that will hopefully change him back. Jokes from the animals are fairly standard. Most attempts at humor come from Rutt & Tuke. A Bob and Doug McKenzie style Canadian Moose duo with the voices of Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas. This was Moranis’ final theatrical role before his retirement. Kenai is joined by a talkative cub named Koda with the commendable voice of child actor Jeremy Suarez. The animal transformation isn’t as funny as The Emperor’s New Groove, but there is a lot of heart. The unlikely brother bears bond all the way to a salmon run where they meet many bears. Including one voiced by Michael Clarke Duncan. All the while Denahi seeks vengeance on the bear in a way that makes him a misunderstood villain. The final lesson about the perspective of one’s supposed enemy works well enough. So Brother Bear at least means well in the end.