In post-Ice Age Alaska the bond between three brothers is shattered when Kenai (voiced by Joaquin Phoenix) loses his elder sibling Sitka (D.B. Sweeney) while they and middle brother Denahi (Jason Raize) chase a Kodiak bear that stole their catch of salmon. Wrongfully blaming the bear for Sitka's death Kenai hunts down and eventually slays the animal. Whereupon Sitka’s spirit appears in the form of an eagle and to teach Kenai a life lesson transforms him into a bear. Bewildered, desperate and lost in the woods, Kenai befriends a chatty and irrepressible little bear cub named Koda (Jeremy Suarez). Together they attempt to find the sacred mountaintop where Sitka’s spirit can hopefully turn Kenai back into a human. All while pursued relentlessly by a vengeful Denahi who believes Kenai was killed by this strange new bear.
By the time the Walt Disney Studio released what would prove their penultimate traditional 2D animated feature audiences were too dazzled by the digital wizardry of Pixar and other studios to take much notice. Nevertheless Brother Bear was deservedly nominated for the Best Animated Feature Oscar and stands as one of the more thematically ambitious offerings from the tail end of the Disney renaissance. Just as Lilo & Stitch (2002) drew extensively upon Hawaiian culture, Brother Bear takes its inspiration from Inuit folklore and ancient tribal customs. A cynic could easily read this as Disney trying to cover all its bases, marketing wise. However, no matter what the merchandizing department thought, the sincerity and attention to authenticity in the production are laudable while the character designs represent another pleasing break from the homogeneous Disney norm. That said had the film been made today Disney would have likely opted for a more ethnically authentic voice cast.
The multi-authored script offers an interesting examination of masculinity. Early into the film a coming of age ceremony sees a pre-transformation Kenai balk at receiving his tribal totem: a bear symbol representing love. What, he sneers derisively, does love have to do with being a man? The ensuing adventure and hijinks, particularly Kenai's growing fraternal bond with the adorable Koda, challenge his prejudice and preconceptions about life by allowing him to walk a mile in a bear's, er, shoes. Admittedly the wholesome message is not substantial enough to elevate a plot that is actually pretty basic. What is more the songs penned by Phil Collins, fresh off an Oscar win for Disney's Tarzan (1999), featuring the likes of Tina Turner (who, given Kenai's dilemma, probably should have reprised "What’s Love Got to Do with It?"), don't quite gel with the milieu or spiritual themes (Mark Mancina's orchestral score works a lot better in this respect).
Yet the sumptuous animation and appealing characters go a long way towards keeping Brother Bear very watchable. Under the guidance of co-directors Aaron Blaise and Robert Walker the Disney animators utilize a lot neat stylistic flourishes here that bring the offbeat story to life. Once Kenai transforms from human to bear the hitherto 4:3 aspect ratio frame expands into a full scope frame while the colours grow lush and beautiful.
On paper Joaquin Phoenix might seem like the least likely actor to voice a Disney character. Yet at the time the notoriously intense and quirky actor was wildly enthusiastic about landing a Disney role, rating the achievement even greater than his Oscar nomination. His ebullience shines through here. Phoenix actually proves a very warm and affable presence and shares appealing chemistry with his engaging young co-star Jeremy Suarez. On top of that Brother Bear pulls off at least one stroke of comedy genius in casting Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas, essentially reprising their iconic SCTV characters Bob and Doug Mackenzie as a Canadian accented moose duo.