Running Time: 85 mins
The Disney empire was built on animation films. In the last ten years other companies have upped the ante in terms of the complexity and nuance of this genre, but even though Disney prefers a more old fashioned style of animation, it has stayed the course. Lion King was a huge hit for them.
In a sense Brother Bear is a Native American version of Lion King, but nearly as successful.
At his initiation into manhood, and against all expectations, the young Native American warrior Kenai (Phoenix) is given the totem of "love" by the priestess Tanana (Joan Copland). His brothers tease mercilessly about it. He was expecting "courage" or "strength". Later, while hunting, his brother Denhai (Jason Raize) is killed by a bear. Kenai vows revenge, but while hunting for the animal the Great Spirits transform the young man into the very thing he wants to destroy - a bear. He gets to see what life is like from the other side of the hunter/hunted divide, and on the way learns more about what love is all about.
Brother Bear offers rich lessons to children about looking at life from the other's perspective, the futility of revenge, understanding love as a greater power than physical strength, and the importance of personal conversion. It also imparts some more subtle wisdom as well. A wise old woman initiates the young warrior into manhood. The power of the metaphysical is presented as real as the physical world. Myth and ritual provide meaning and explanations for the tribe's relationships to this world and the next.
Like Lion King it moves along at a good pace. 85 minutes is an ideal length for its target audience. And while it uses silence to great effect, it also has a huge music score and some sing-along songs.
For all of that, Brother Bear fails to impress us as much as Lion King for three reasons. The animation here is a little too simple. The developments in this genre means there is no going back in the look animatics can now give us, and the style here looks quaint.
Because Lion King had talking animals the audience knew from the start that they were entering into a fantasy world. In Brother Bear the beliefs of the Native Americans are presented with appropriate seriousness but, well into the film, the narrative spins off into fantasy. The gear change is hard to take.
This movement into acting out the spiritual world of the Native Americans also distances the audience's emotional investment. In Lion King we were involved from the start. That's one of the reasons it appealed to adults as much as children. In Brother Bear we are positioned to identity with Kenai, and then pushed away.
Brother Bear remains an excellent animation film for children, one with several excellent moral messages. It's just probably not the hit Disney would have liked it to be.
Fr Richard Leonard SJ is the Director of the Australian Catholic Film Office.