Film: Brother Bear (2003)
Stars: Joaquin Phoenix, Jeremy Suarez, Rick Moranis, Dave Thomas, Jason Raize
Director: Aaron Blaise and Robert Walker
Oscar History: 1 nomination (Best Animated Feature)
Snap Judgment Ranking: 2/5 stars
It's hard to remember this right now, but in the mid-Aughts the Disney brand was suffering pretty severely. Competition in the animated sector, after a gigantic monopoly of quality entertainment in the 1990's, was fierce. Dreamworks had the Shrek franchise blasting through record-after-record, and Disney's kid sister Pixar had officially usurped it as the coolest kid on the block. In fact, from 2004-2007, Disney had three consecutive films fail to land in the Animated Feature Oscar race, the only time since the category's inception that that has happened. The film directly preceding this drought, Brother Bear, I remember thinking only made it at the time due to a complete dearth of competitors-2003 was arguably the thinnest year for animated contenders I've seen since the Oscars created a category for this sub-genre. That being said, a nomination is a nomination, and we have an OVP to consider, so during my recent vacation, I set about finally seeing the flick.
(Spoilers Ahead) The thing to remember about Disney in this era is that they were slowly moving out of the animated films that had made them so much money (mimicking Dreamworks and Pixar), but hadn't entirely abandoned it. So there are songs a-few in this film, perhaps trying to gun for an Oscar nomination in the aural categories as well (they failed there, even with Tina Turner and Phil Collins providing vocals to original ditties), but that isn't the central focus. Here the central focus is on Kenai (Phoenix, and I will admit fully I had no idea he was providing the vocal track until I read it earlier this morning), a young Inuit man who is upset about his totem (he gets the bear of love), and then goes off and needlessly attacks and kills a bear. In the process of killing the bear, however, his eldest brother dies and Kenai is transformed into a bear (because, you know, Disney), and has to learn to walk in the shoes of another before the spell can be broken.
The film is pretty indicative of where Disney went wrong post about Mulan. The films of this era couldn't find the right balance between classic and modernizing, a blend I'm still not 100% certain they've really achieved (note that we don't have Rapunzel or The White Queen, but instead Tangled and Frozen), but they've definitely come closer to accomplishing. The film has darker moments, the ones that sort of catapulted Disney to high-brow, but they feel much less mindful than the sacrifices of Mufasa or Bambi's mother in the past, as Kenai's older brother is basically alive as a spirit for most of the movie, becoming more of a Grandmother Willow situation than anything else. The film has a strong message, and it shouldn't be completely discarded, but the movie itself has too many side characters that just seem strange and have comedy that relies on accents and not really on actual jokes (Moranis and Thomas, both quintessentially Canadian comedians, voice moose that take on the bulk of comic relief). There's clearly a racial metaphor at work here as well, but it feels too obvious at times, and there's not enough actual character focus on Kenai (what does he do other than be a cocky blowhard prior to becoming a bear?). All in all, it's a pretty blasé entry from Disney, and even if it looks like the sort of film that made the studio successful, it never remotely hits the level of great that we'd come to expect during that era.
Those are my thoughts on a long-forgotten entry in the Disney canon-how about yours? Am I underestimating this film, or do you agree that this got nominated sheerly out of a lack of obvious contenders? Are any of the subsequent Disney films (Home on the Range, Chicken Little, Meet the Robinsons) worth looking into or should I just leave these where they lay? The comments are below for you to let me know!