When it comes to the many eras that Walt Disney Animation Studios has experienced, the Post-Renaissance era in the 2000s is the one I find the most fascinating. This era was definitely one of Disney Animation's darkest eras even though there were a couple of films that stood out. With that said, some of their animated films were duds and easily among the worst in the studio's catalog. "Brother Bear" is a film I think is somewhere in the middle. It's certainly not a great animated film as it does have problems that hold it back from its full potential, but I don't think it's a bad animated film at all either. There are plenty of elements I enjoyed about this film that I could return to even with the downsides that hold it back. Overall, I guess I found it okay.
In the Alaskan wilderness right after the ice age, a trio of tribesmen brothers named Kenai (Joaquin Phoenix), Denahi (Jason Raize), and Sitka (D.B. Sweeny) have received totems from the spirits that will guide them into becoming men. While Sitka gains the eagle of guidance and Denahi the wolf of wisdom, Kenai gets the bear of love which he is less than pleased with. It only goes south from there when Sitka is killed by a bear and Kenai wanting revenge hunts down the bear and kills it. The death of the bear displeases the spirits and as punishment, Kenai is turned into a bear and thrown into the wilderness. Shocked at his transformation, Kenai then runs into a younger bear named Koda (Jeremy Suarez) who was separated from his mother and is heading back to his home at the salmon run which is near the mountain where the spirits meet. Hoping to become human again, Kenai sets out with Koda toward the salmon run not knowing that his own brother Denahi is after him thinking that he has been killed by the bear he had hunted.
I don't think this film is nearly as bad as some people have said. When it comes to ranking the many films from Walt Disney Animation Studios, this one is often near the end of the list. Personally, I do not agree with that notion at all as this film has plenty of moments I genuinely found great. However, it's a very uneven film that is held back by some flaws that hurt the film from becoming fantastic. I think the story had the most potential and works partially well. The story of a man transformed into an animal and learning to love is certainly not a new story for Disney as they had already done that with their masterpiece "Beauty and the Beast" twelve years before this film though where this film differs from that one is the love in this film is not romantic but rather platonic. I think it works very well with Kenai's character who starts out very flawed and immature though soon realizes his mistakes and matures throughout the film and the scenes were and he Koda bond together mostly work. The film also has scenes that emotionally stand out from a tense chase where Koda and Kenai race through deadly hot springs trying to escape Denahi to an atmospheric scene where the two bears stumble upon ancient cave paintings and where Kenai starts to realize that humans can be just as much of a monster as a bear. I also love the idea of having Denahi be the antagonist of the story and wanting to avenge the death of his two brothers not knowing that his younger brother is still alive albeit not himself. I do wish the film had more of him though as the film could've benefited from both sides of the story as both Denahi and Kenai mature and accept their totems by the end of the film. At least it builds to a climax and ending that really pays off. Where the story really falls flat though is the comedy which wasn't very funny most of the time. There are a lot of real eye-rollers throughout this film that mostly comes from the animals after Kenai turns into a bear and it really bogs down the film big time. There's a couple of jokes that got a mild chuckle out of me, but sadly most of the other jokes are duds. I also think the characters could've been a bit polished as well. As I previously stated, I think Kenai and Denahi work as protagonist and antagonist that come to realize the mistakes they made and both Phoenix and Raize are very good in their parts. I do wish they weren't as childish and immature initially. I know that was the filmmaker's intent so they can mature to the end of the film and I'm totally fine with that, I just wish they toned back their immaturity as it was a bit grating. I also thought Koda while cute was also slightly annoying at times as he constantly talks and talks about stories regarding his life and his mother which got old slightly fast, but he still works for me as he and Kenai share some fun bonding moments together. I also love the bears the duo encounter at the salmon run as while they are initially curious and confused by Kenai's actions, they don't shun him or throw him aside which I really appreciated. I did find the two moose Rutt and Tuke (Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas) incredibly annoying and pointless comic relief. I do love Moranis and Thomas, but they were really given some bad lines and came off as very annoying with a scene where the duo play I Spy and constantly point out trees being the big groaner especially considering that "Finding Nemo" did a similar joke that worked a lot better. Overall, I think this script really needed to be polished before the animation was started. Speaking of the animation, it's easily the main highlight of the film. This is such a gorgeous animated film to look at. The backgrounds were modeled after the paintings of Albert Bierstadt and it really looks gorgeous. The Alaskan wilderness with the snow, ice, mountains, and trees looked breathtaking and I could tell the filmmakers must've really gone deep into their research when they visited these areas in real life. I also really love the decision the filmmakers used by changing the film's aspect ratio in the film. When Kenai starts off as a human, the film starts off in a standard aspect ratio as well as the colors being a bit muted though the film becomes more bright and colorful and the film becomes wider after he transforms into a bear. It's a cool little technical trick. Even the blending of the computer-animated backgrounds and characters still held up well almost twenty years later. I especially loved the character animation as well with the animation of Kenai as a bear which was mostly from supervising animator Byron Howard. The only thing about the animation that has not stood the test of time is the computer animation of some of the animals like the salmon and caribou. They have not aged very well especially compared to the wildebeest from "The Lion King" which came out almost a decade before this film. I should also briefly talk about the and music songs composed by Phil Collins. Compared to his work from "Tarzan", I was split on it. I did like the opening song "Great Spirits" sung by Tina Tuner and I also found "On My Way" a catchy little number and my favorite song of the film, but I sadly don't remember "Welcome" and really dislike how the placement of "No Way Out" was used which took place during a very emotional moment during the film. I'm all for letting the visuals tell the story, but that was not done very well here especially compared to the original version of the scene where the dialogue was heard which was a huge gut punch. The final film though left me feeling rather unsatisfied.
In the end, "Brother Bear" has its moments though it's held back by problems. The story has some great emotional moments but poor comedy, the animation is fantastic and still looks amazing, and the characters are well developed even if they were a bit grating at times. I think this film isn't as strong as it should be, but I can't bring myself to say I hate it. The good moments in this film really are so good that it's a shame that the flaws hold it back. It's certainly not unbearable, but I wish it was a tad bit better.