The Bear Trap
Emru Townsend · February 22, 2004 | Brother Bear came to us at a strange time. Disney, long the bellwether of the American feature animation industry, had had a number of outright failures (Atlantis, Treasure Planet) while the films it distributed for others had earned critical and/or commercial success (the Pixar and Miyazaki films). We've all heard the accepted wisdom: it's looking like the death knell for traditional animation, especially at the Mouse House. When I sat down to watch Brother Bear back in September, I had the distinct feeling that Brother Bear was going to be Disney Feature Animation's last hurrah.
(I know, I know. There's still Home on the Range. But the fact remains that Disney is staffing up or training for CGI and Range is the only traditionally animated film in the Disney pipeline.)
So about halfway through, I realized I couldn't watch the movie without feeling the weight of 14 years of Disney animation history, and thinking about what things could be like in the future.
Then that damn singing started.
Okay, here's something I won't miss: Phil-freakin'-Collins and his bland, unsurprising lyrics. One of the things that made The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin so pleasurable was Howard Ashman and Alan Menken's brilliant songwriting. Veterans of stage musicals, the pair understood how to make music intertwine with and support the story, rather than just act as a background to the images. Furthermore, they understood when and where to vary the musical mood, and how to create dramatic or comedic tension by putting lyrics opposite to onscreen actions. A little cleverness goes a long way. In Brother Bear, as with Tarzan and Treasure Planet, I just wanted the songs to be over.
Oh, and speaking of those two, I won't miss the pointless sidekicks (aside from comic relief, Rutt and Tuke exist for exactly one moment of revelation in the film). I'm still reeling over the idea that Mulan's sidekick Mushu had a sidekick of his own.
But there's one thing I will certainly miss, and that's the soul of the drawn image. I'm not one of those people who says that drawn animation is inherently warmer than CGI, because I don't believe we've even scratched the surface of CGI's possibilities yet. But there's that moment in Brother Bear where Sitka realizes that in order for his two younger brothers to live, he has to die—and when he looks up, he's wearing an expression that mixes resignation, sorrow and determination so perfectly that for an instant it's as if there's nothing else on the screen. I can't imagine a live-action actor conveying that mix of emotions as clearly as the animator and clean-up artist who drew that scene. And, while it might be possible to get that across in CGI, stop-motion, or any of the other many animation techniques, I don't believe it would be the same.
When DreamWorks' Jeffery Katzenberg officially declared that his company would no longer play the traditional animation game, this is what should have happened: lacking any real competition in the field, Disney should have started work on a genuinely kickass film—something with a compelling story that showcased the storytelling and artistic skills gained over the last decade and a half. It could have been a musical, science fiction, fantasy, comedy, a film for kids, a film for adults, whatever—but mainly, it should have been carefully crafted by an exceptional team that was sure in its abilities. And when it was released to the world, it would have declared: "Drawn animation is far from dead; it's part of our company's heritage; and we are masters of the form."
Millions would have cheered. (And, not incidentally, forked over their hard-earned money.)
But that's in an ideal world, where Disney executives don't mess with perfectly good ideas and trust the people they condescendingly refer to collectively as "the talent." Unfortunately, we don't live in an ideal world. We live in the one where highly paid executives make craven, short-sighted decisions, and turn loose hundreds of artists that they themselves taught to be among the best in the world. Some of those artists are now forming their own studios, and I'm sure we'll be seeing more hand-drawn features at some point in the future.
What we won't be seeing is the concentration of talent, money, distribution and tradition that Disney had, because when the going got tough Disney, a company built on risks and innovation, caved. And that's a damn shame.