Dr. Toon ruminates about whether declaring that the final nail has been driven into the coffin of 2D animation is a bit of a rush to judgment.
I think animals are always so cute, said Hobbes, worrying a sick raccoon, in one of Bill Wattersons Calvin and Hobbes strips from 1988. The image of a stuffed tiger talking wistfully of the cuteness of an ailing raccoon speaks considerably to the unwritten motto of Disney feature animation, the original home of cute talking animals that move. From the Three Little Pigs to Bambi to Baloo to Stitch, giving human qualities to the non-human has been the through line and the meal ticket for Disney; but in Brother Bear, the studios latest offering, anthropomorphism graduates from subtext to text.
Kenai, the middle brother of three Native Americans living in the Pacific Northwest some time after the retreat of the glaciers, witnesses the death of his older brother Sitka at the hands of a grizzly bear. High in the mountains, Kenai exacts his revenge on the bear, but the auroral Great Spirits have other plans and Kenai shortly awakens in a different terrain and a different body. Transformed into a bear and separated from everyone he knew, bear-hating Kenai must ally himself with a bear cub named Koda and find his way back to the mountaintop, where the Great Spirits can undo the change.
Troubles vex him, not least his own brother Denahi, who was moments too late to witness the transformation, and now considers Kenai, the bear, as the bear who killed Kenai. Kenai must fend off not only his own brothers attacks, but attacks of conscience when he realizes his companion Koda, a motherless cub, is motherless for a specific and terrible reason that Kenai alone knows.
The story kernel formed, so legend has it, when The Lion King blew up the box office in 1994, and Disney ceo Michael Eisner saw no new animal projects in the pipeline. Eisner wanted something specifically North American, taking particular inspiration from an original landscape hed bought by Albert Bierstadt: epic in girth, its colors hyper-real, the product of a 19th century school of painting trying to contain in its canvases the sheer vastness of the still-unexplored American West. To track the king idea, the hero would naturally be a bear, king of the forest.
I came on about six years ago and started doing research on different bear myths and legends from around the world, says co-director Aaron Blaise, and I came upon these transformation myths that the Native Americans had. They really lent themselves to animation, and the magic we like to portray in our stories. He became a bug in the ear of then-division head Tom Schumacher. Blaise was a well-respected animator, had done Rajah in Aladdin, and Nala in Lion King, and really ran his supervising crew well, says producer Chuck Williams. And Schumacher said, Well, Aaron, you might make a good director.
Idea of the Century
By 1997 the Bear idea had kicked around development in the form of something called Timber, as well as another idea that appropriated King Lear where an old blind bear traveled the forest with his three daughters. I heard they were knocking on doors and sleeping in beds, says Williams. Aaron didnt want to tell a story like that. He wanted something much more naturalistic. In 1998 Blaise and Williams came up with a two-page description of a father-son story where the son is transformed into a bear, and in the end remains a bear. Tom Schumacher held it up and said This is the idea of the century, says Williams. Lets get you guys a writer. Tab Murphy (The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Tarzan) was hired, and the project began to blossom.
Aaron Blaise (left) and Bob Walker make their directing debut on Brother Bear.
Disneys Florida studio produced Brother Bear, which represents its first fully homegrown product. The Orlando studio opened April 17, 1989, the day Blaise, Williams and co-director Robert Walker originally met. At first numbering 70 (they have since grown to 400), the staff was assembled to produce featurettes for Mickey, Donald, and Goofy. We actually never did that, says Blaise. We ended up doing the Roger Rabbit shorts, and then we became a B unit for California. After animating sequences for the likes of Beauty and the Beast, the Florida studio finally got its own feature to animate, 1998s Mulan. Last years hit Lilo & Stitch was also animated entirely in Orlando; yet they never worked on a story entirely their own. This one was formed in Florida from its inception, says Williams, from the blank sheet of paper all the way through to the end.
After the project was green-lit, Blaise immediately went into the field to research. Ive been going to Alaska for years doing my own paintings, he says, so I thought, man, setting this thing in Alaska would be great. He and his story department visited Alaskas Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes and Kodiak Island, detouring as well through Yellowstone National Park, The Grand Tetons and Californias Sequoia National Park. Environmentally, within the movie, Blaise says, Weve created this idealistic North America, grabbing the best of everything.
The style of the films backgrounds came from a source closer to home. Theres a hallway on the studios third floor where Disney artists show their own work in a gallery setting, and one day the wandering directors were exposed to the work of Xiangyuan (Jay) Jie. Bob and I knew we wanted a real rugged, artful-looking film, says Blaise. We didnt want it to be really detailed and highly rendered. When they saw Jies bold, impressionistic landscapes, they were hooked. You could see every brushstroke, says Bob Walker, and the way he handles color is incredible. The rest of the unit was immediately trained to paint like Jie.
As the story developed, the creative heads burned daylight endlessly looking for a voice to play the lead. Kenai would be a demanding part, because in Brother Bear there is no good guy/bad guy dichotomy. There is no villain in the movie, says Blaise. The villain is our hero We concentrated so much on trying to find the right voice qualities, we were kind of shooting ourselves in the foot. They were still regrouping when Gladiator came out in 2000; and there was Joaquin Phoenix, earning the audiences sympathy even as his character killed his own father. [With Joaquin], we thought: Heres a guy that has great vulnerability, says Williams.
Jeremy Suarez started playing Koda in Brother Bear at age 11, voicing a character who, in human terms, would have been seven or eight. He was actually on an audition tape with a whole bunch of actors for Finding Nemo, says Walker, and we fell in love with him. A current co-star on The Bernie Mac Show, Suarez has all the qualities of Koda, says Williams: the talkativeness, being excited about something even to the point where you slur your words from talking so fast.
Most of the recording sessions were solo affairs, with Suarez and Phoenix working together only once or twice. Dave Thomas and Rick Moranis as moose brothers Rutt and Tuke, however, performed simultaneously throughout. They were the easiest guys to cast, says Blaise. We thought, if Kenais going into the animal world, why not give the animals different dialects just like in the human world? And then we thought, well, this is North America, you gotta have some Canadian characters in there. And then right away it was moose, and then right after that we thought, okay, its got to be Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas. It all happened within minutes.
Getting the two actors to commit to the idea wasnt as simple, but once Moranis and Thomas had agreed on all the ways the moose could be funny and still not resemble Bob and Doug McKenzie, the two were off and running and the directors were cradling their aching faces. Aaron and I had front-row seats at every recording session, says Walker. Theyd do the pages, then theyd develop their own little thing, and by the end it was nuts. Wed come out of there with sore jaws from laughing.
Not a Musical
The film has six songs, sung by the likes of Tina Turner, the Blind Boys of Alabama, the Bulgarian Womens Choir and the films co-composer Phil Collins. This is Collins first foray into film scoring, a job he shares with Mark Mancina, and Williams calls the results surprising: particularly the action sequences, which play out not to stop-on-a-dime tempo shifts but steady driving rhythms. Typical scores go for the in-the-moment shifting, Williams says; Phil writes as a drummer. He drives right through it. As in Tarzan, Brother Bear is musical but not a musical. Frankly, I dont feel like people really want to see characters singing anymore, says Blaise. (Little Koda does in fact attempt to break into song at one point, and Kenai stuffs him in a hollow log for his efforts.)
Brother Bear is in Cinemascope, but it doesnt start that way. Other animation has been in Scope, but never before has an animated feature changed aspect ratio mid-stream. Like the 1982 sci-fi flick Brainstorm, Brother Bear is part Academy ratio (1.85:1) and part Scope (2.35:1); and, as in Brainstorm, the format shifts with changing points of view. We figured, why not have the audience go through a different point of view, says Walker, like Kenai does when he gets turned into a bear?
Throughout act one, with Kenai still a human, the frame is in Academy ratio and stationary, with the colors growing progressively muted. When Kenai is transformed into a bear in act two, the screen widens to Scope, the color palette changes from gray to highly saturated, and the camera is freed to move around. Walker says that although the saturated colors do pop out, he hopes the aspect ratio change will be felt rather than seen: A lot of people dont notice it until theyre told, actually.
Apart from the issue of securing the title which had to be licensed from the owners of the Berenstain Bears the production went off with no major setbacks, under budget and ahead of schedule (no mean feat since it was originally scheduled to come out next April, before its play date was switched with Home on the Ranges). This brings particular satisfaction to producer Williams, who is only too aware of recent animated box-office failures.
Its not just our studio, Williams says, its about being responsible filmmakers. If we want to keep making films, we have to be able to meet the business side of things. And todays CGI-versus-traditional debate isnt helping; its twaddle, surely, but how many executives are secretly (and not-so-secretly) buying into the traditional-is-dead trope?
Its not the technique, its the project that matters, Williams says simply. Do you care if your cabinets put together with nails or screws? No. Its what it does for you, and how it functions in your life. [Our] next film A Few Good Ghosts is a hybrid film. Its 2D and 3D. There may be a different tool for the project after that. It may be clay animation. Who knows. The people here can embrace it, and still tell good stories.
Taylor Jessen is a writer and archivist living in Burbank. His piece on the production history of the animated feature Twice Upon a Time will appear in Animation Blast #9 in early 2004.