Few companies throughout the history of the world have been so shameless in their pursuit of the almighty dollar as the Walt Disney Company. After breaking the mold in 1934, Disney has never shied away from creative marketing and release strategies to wring every last dollar out of its most beloved pieces of intellectual property. Each week, we’ll look at the House of Mouse’s various sequels, prequels, spin-offs and various misadventures relegated from the silver screen to the small screen. Is there any artistic merit to be found? Or was each film mostly conceived as an excuse to print more money? Join me as we search for the answers from the wonderful world of Di$ney.
Why does this exist?
Plenty of Disney’s animated films had been successful since 1994’s The Lion King. Virtually all of them were financial successes but none became a cultural touchstone in the way that film had; the Toy Story films and Finding Nemo were exceptions, but those were Pixar creations. It makes sense that Disney CEO Michael Eisner wanted to tap into what made The Lion King such a hit when he initially conceived Brother Bear in 2003.
The similarities are evident but not so much to make the film feel like a blatant ripoff. You have the talking animals, the death of a family member (that triggers the protagonist to transform into a bear), and you have the music from a global-sensation recording artist in Phil Collins — although the film eschews any performed musical interludes in favor of Disney’s more recent trend of soundtrack music. The story neither necessitated a sequel nor was the cultural boon Eisner hoped for, although it did rake in $250 million at the end of the day. But the potential was out there, and Disney’s home releases had enjoyed relative success.
What’s going on here?
The only connection Brother Bear 2 has to the original film is the characters. No one mentions the original film’s events, which led me at first to believe that this film might be similar to Tarzan II or Bambi II, taking place somewhere in between the events of the first film. Kenai, who chose to remain a bear at the end of Brother Bear, spends his time with his “brother” Koda — also a bear — rummaging for berries and doing various bear things. We’re introduced, via an opening flashback, to Nita, one of Kenai’s childhood friends. In the present day, Nita is preparing to marry a man she’s never met. When an ominous sign comes forth during the ceremony, the village elders reveal that Nita and Kenai were already bonded together and the spirits wouldn’t permit her to marry someone else. She finds Kenai, who has to destroy a necklace together with her. Of course, Kenai and Nita rekindle their friendship and realize they love each other. The film does explore Koda’s jealousy when Nita comes between him and Kenai — itself a kind of narrative softball — but it doesn’t hinder the film from humming along between its bigger moments. The comic-relief moose are back and hornier than ever as they fight for the affections of two female moose. I mostly used that last sentence as an excuse to use the plural form of moose … twice.
How much of the original is preserved?
Nothing that plays out in this film is entirely new for Disney but, at the same time, the original film didn’t exactly break new ground. The most notable aspect of Brother Bear is its stunning action visuals. The animators found inventive ways to show the Alaskan / Canadian wilderness, and thankfully that sense of wonder is still present in the sequel. One sequence shows Koda and Nita fleeing an avalanche that looks as good as some of the moments from the original film.
Patrick Dempsey does his best Joaquin Phoenix impersonation to provide the voice of Kenai while Mandy Moore — in her first appearance for the Disney Machine — voices Nita. Both do serviceable jobs with their characters, but the real accomplishment is that Disney roped in top-tier talent to voice characters in a direct-to-video sequel to a half-successful property. The rest of the primary voice cast returns, including Jeremy Suarez (whose voice belongs next to the dictionary’s definition of “adorable”), Rick Moranis, and Michael Clarke Duncan.
Although Phil Collins was unable to return for Brother Bear 2, Disney found a suitable (I’m using that term liberally here) replacement in Melissa Etheridge. While I have zero desire to ever return to this film’s soundtrack, I will admit that the songs’ laid-back acoustics fit with its aesthetic somehow.
Does this ruin the original film?
I don’t know if I could nail down a theme of either film that’s readily available. I could say Kenai’s journey is about staying true to yourself or friendship, but isn’t that essentially what every Disney film is about? Most importantly, Brother Bear 2 doesn’t throw away the original film’s goodwill by giving any unrealistic character motivations to anyone. Brother Bear was barely given the opportunity to become a franchise. The first film was swallowed up during the heyday of Pixar, released between all-time greats like Finding Nemo and The Incredibles, and the sequel came during a rare post-Renaissance dark period. The studio’s output around the sequel included Chicken Little,Meet the Robinsons and The Santa Clause 3. Maybe audiences just couldn’t connect with the films as much as Disney’s previous films like The Lion King. Maybe the merchandise potential wasn’t as strong as the studio’s more fantastical offerings. Neither film is likely to stir up any deep-seated emotions in the ways that the best Disney films do. I understand why they never caught on but don’t think they deserve to be relegated to the basement of Disney+. The two films are, at worst, a decent, soothing background filler.