After a decade of animated blockbuster domination in the 90s renaissance with hits like Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and Mulan, Walt Disney Animation’s efforts entering the new millennium aimed to reinvent the kinds of films and stories that the juggernaut studio dared to create. While still appealing to a general family audience, films like The Emperor’s New Groove, Atlantis: The Lost Empire, Lilo and Stitch and Treasure Planet heralded in a creatively experimental era for Disney Animation as they pushed for atypical art direction, tones and themes to make them stand out from the rising interest of the then-new medium of CG animation from counterparts Pixar and DreamWorks. However, this age of pushing boundaries and artistic reinvention also gave way to the last of one of the studio’s most enduring classical genres of animated films, the wildlife morality epic.

Celebrating its twentieth anniversary, the Academy Award nominated Brother Bear marked the studio’s 44th animated feature, as well as the third and final film to be produced at the off-shoot Orlando studio headquartered at Walt Disney World’s Hollywood Studios park. Directed by Aaron Blaise and Robert Walker, the film follows young Alaskan tribesman Kenai, voiced by Joaquin Phoenix, who is transformed into a bear by the great northern spirits as penance for the wrongful murder of a mother bear. While there have been many Disney films before this that have prominently featured animal characters in nature, Brother Bear represents the pinnacle end of a bygone mold of Disney films that sought to tell stories of personal growth and maturity through the use of animals and their experience in the wilderness.

Apart from Disney’s animal films permitting its animators to beautify their artistry of the natural world and the human characterization of animal personalities, their strongest advantage has also been able to embody some of the studio’s strongest tales of morality and mortality. Following in the spirit of Bambi, The Jungle Book, The Lion King and Tarzan, Brother Bear uses animal characters against the backdrop of the beauties and dangers of the natural world to tell a story of coming of age and the strength of family and friendship in ways that Disney’s romance-based human fairy tales don’t. The roster of quintessential boy-meets-girl princess narratives that Disney became famous for are largely built on themes of following dreams, true love’s kiss, or wishing upon a star. While the Disney fairy tale has proven to explore many kinds of character arcs and romantic dilemmas, it is the films set in the wild starring talking animals that ironically touch upon more grounded stories and humanist themes.

What principally sets these animal films apart from their fairy tale contemporaries is their willingness to explore heavy concepts surrounding death, loss and the fragility of life. Despite being populated with caricatured creatures and animated animals, films like Brother Bear, Bambi and The Lion King especially don’t shy away from the harsher aspects of life in the wild and how they can mirror the trials of the human experience as allegory. Unlike the romantic melodramas of the princess films, the stakes in Disney’s animal fables span the totality of one’s place in the world and how they cope with grander concepts than just romance or dreams.

Grief and grappling with identity are particularly prevalent in these kinds of films, such as Simba and Tarzan’s acceptance of responsibility in the face of tragedy, Mowgli and Bambi’s conquering of fear and Kenai’s change in perspective on how to let compassion guide his life. Conversely, films like Robin Hood and Zootopia may be swarmed with a whole menagerie of animal characters, but the worlds and themes of their stories more overtly mimic human history and politics to meet a specifically human story, making their appearance as animals almost a moot point. Disney’s wild animal characters are written to not be burdened by how humans are expected to live and are instead embraced to capture identifiable human characteristics and emotions through the guise of naturalistic animal behavior. Deep human stories and rich human characters are born from seeing the humanity in the lives of animals and their stories. Disney’s animal epics use man’s relationship to nature and nature itself to capture the joys and sorrows one experiences in accepting responsibility and facing hardships in taking part in the “circle of life”.

At its crux, Brother Bear exemplifies the kind of themes Disney is able to touch upon through animal allegory. The film champions the power of changes and transformation, both the natural and spiritual. Whether it is the change of the seasons or the evolving into adulthood, Kenai’s transformation into a bear after having vengefully killed one granted him a literal and figurative new perspective on how he views the value of animal life and his personal totem of love. Kenai set out to kill a bear he blamed for the death of his brother Sitka (D.B. Sweeney). It is after forming a brotherhood with young cub Koda (Jeremy Suarez), who was orphaned by Kenai’s killing, that Kenai begins to understand the value of life and virtue of love.

Love is not what informed his actions to avenge his brother, but it is what powered his decision to remain a bear and live with Koda in nature. It was his experience as an animal, learning how he was viewed as a monster by Koda and the other bears, that Kenai learned humility, forgiveness and unconditional love. The film took a hard-nosed approach to how humans and animals view each other in a way not seen in a Disney film since Bambi and how Kenai’s story ends bookends the studio’s animal epics that sought to see man and animals as spiritual equals.

Brother Bear’s greatest strength as a Disney animated feature is how it champions the studio’s storytelling philosophy of attributing deep human pathos to wild animals. By focusing on how the lives of animal characters are shaped by their relationship to nature and even humanity, films like Brother Bear and The Lion King are able to embody a more timeless and morally nuanced quality than typical Disney stories. Brother Bear stands as the last Disney film of this kind to purely focus on animal allegory that allows the human experience to be echoed in wildlife, not the other way around. It is when Disney examines how animals reflect our own humanity that their most human experiences are brought to the screen.

Brother Bear is available to stream on Disney+ in the U.S.

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