This last gasp of the Disney Animated Renaissance deserves much more respect

2003's Brother Bear marked the end of the glory days of the Disney Animated Renaissance but deserves far more respect from Disney fans today!
Michael Eisner
Michael Eisner / Mark Mainz/GettyImages

The years of 1989 to 2003 are remembered well as the Disney Animated Renaissance. After years in the doldrums, Disney exploded back to prominence, with The Little Mermaid in 1989 becoming a box office smash and Oscar-winning hit. 

From there came the plethora of now-classic hand-drawn animated films with Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King and more. It was almost a formula for Disney as no matter how else their box office fared that year, they could always count on the big animated feature being a money maker. 

Most believe that this ended with Treasure Planet's box office flop. However, in 2003, Disney released what was seen as the last true gasp of this era, a movie that was a good money-maker at the box office but has been almost totally ignored since. 

Brother Bear.

Its history is unique, and there are some good touches to it with the story and animation. Yet it's a movie that's never gotten the respect or adulation of scores of other films of this period and 20 years later, many Disney fans don't even know it exists. From its backstory to its charms, this movie should be remembered more as it stands as the end of a unique era in Disney's history and is still a fun film.

The Bear's backstory

In 1989, the Disney-MGM Studios opened with the Animation Studios giving guests a peek at how these movies were created. This was great timing as The Little Mermaid's release sparked a new era of animation greatness.

The reality was the Florida studios were often the secondary one to Disney's Burbank studios handling the bigger projects. The Florida studio was mostly for guests to see how the animation process worked while doing shorts. They did produce a few features like Mulan and Lilo and Stitch, but pretty much the "B" team. 

After Mulan, Disney was still planning a score of hand-drawn animated features and going for "prestige" stuff. Michael Eisener wanted something involving bears just because he liked them. There was also the obvious idea that after The Lion King, making a movie about animals could provide some great merchandising options. 

As Lion King was inspired by Hamlet, one early idea was playing with King Lear with a blind bear led by three daughters for adventures. It was shifted in story beats until eventually morphing into a tale inspired by trips to Alaska and the story we know. 

The Brother Bear story and its changes

The heart of the story was always much the same: In olden times, brothers Kenai (Joaquin Phoenix), Denahi (Jason Raize, who sadly died in 2004, so this was his only role), and Sitka (D.B. Sweeney) are hunters for a tribe who believe in the Great Spirits. Kenai is given the totem of a bear, which he hates as thieves. That's not helped when, during a hunt, Sitka sacrifices himself saving the brothers from a bear. 

An outraged Kenai hunts down the bear and kills it. The Spirits respond by transforming Kenai into a bear with Denahi wrongly assuming this bear killed his brother and hunting him down. Now able to talk to animals, Kenai tries to find a way to restore his humanity. 

Originally, Kenai was to befriend an older, wise bear voiced by the late, great Michael Clarke Duncan. During story development, the animators decided that Grizz would keep Kenai from developing as a character like they wanted him to. So they felt it would be better for him to bond with someone younger and thus created Koda, an abandoned bear voiced by Jeremy Suarez. The two soon work together, with Koda trying to find his mom and helping Kenai get to a mystical mountain alongside other bears (which includes Duncan as their leader).

Of course, we can't have a Disney movie of this era without the whacky comic relief, and in this case, it was Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas as a pair of moose clearly based on their old SCTV Bob and Doug MacKenzie characters. Thankfully, they're not in it too long, but it can be a bit grating. There's also Estelle Harris as an older bear, among a few other voices, such as future NCIS star Pauley Perrette. 

Now, the would-be big plot twist involving Koda's mother can be seen a mile away, yet the scene where it's revealed is still a powerful moment. It helps that it's already shown that Kenai is an impulsive teenager, and the movie is all about accepting the consequences of his actions. That leads to the finale, which is likewise obvious yet still clicks nicely, which is something you can say about the rest of the movie. 

Why Brother Bear deserves more respect

First of all, let's put aside the idea that the movie was a box-office disappointment. In fact, it was one of the most profitable for Disney that year, grossing $250 million off a $40 million budget. Compare that with Dreamworks' 2003 film Sinbad, which barely made $80 million off a $60 million budget. In fact, Brother Bear outdid a few other non-Pixar Disney animated offerings since Tarzan

The movie does have its flaws in storytelling, pushing comedy aspects and character beats. As noted, the big plot turns are pretty obvious and the movie acting like they should be shocks doesn't land while the tale can meander in the midway point.

Yet Phoenix shows his young talent in the title role, showcasing Kenai's growth from an arrogant teen to accepting his many flaws, and his bond with Koda is well done. The finale also comes together well to show even if you know where a story is going, it doesn't make it less effective.

The animation is glorious, truly showing the animators using their research in Alaska well with fantastic vistas and terrific effects like Kenai's transformation. The fact they did so much on a fraction of the budget for most Disney films of the time is all the more impressive, even if they had to outsource the final works to their Paris studios. Still, it shows the lost art (literally) of animation drawn from real-life locations that make it feel more vibrant and alive than some computer-created landscape. 

For the music, you can't go wrong with songs by the icon Tina Turner and Mark Mancia and Phil Collins providing a fun score that captures the mood for the outdoor settings and adventure with pathos for the fates of several characters.

Obviously, Disney did the usual merchandising blitz at the parks with scores of dolls, trinkets, posters, etc. There was also the inevitable straight-to-video 2006 sequel with Patrick Dempsey as Kenai and Mandy Moore as a human woman with whom he bonds. 

Despite all that, somehow, the movie has vanished from the talk of the Disney animated films of the time. By that point, Disney was already backing away from hand-drawn animation thanks to the success of Pixar and Dreamworks. It didn't help that the reviews for Bear were mixed, and, to be honest, much of it was sticking to a tried and true Disney formula that was already feeling old-hat by the 2000s. 

It stands as the last big project for the Florida studio, which (following the disaster of 2004's Home on the Range) would end Disney's hand-drawn animation era with the Florida Studios becoming a character meet and greet. Which is a shame as Brother Bear, while flawed, has its great charms. The voice work is good, the animation is top-notch (and all the more impressive given the lower budget), and the message of forgiveness and misjudging others still works.

Over 20 years after its release, Brother Bear can be seen as the lost sheep of the Disney films of this era despite being one of the more profitable of the time. It deserves more attention and appreciation by a generation who miss the classic hand-drawn movies of the past and perhaps can finally find the respect it deserves.

Brother Bear streaming on Disney+.