The following is from Feature Animation Forum on March 14, 2001

BROTHER BEAR: Once Joaquin Phoenix (from Gladiator) wraps up work on "It's All About Love", his next job is this Disney animated movie in 2002. Talking with Liz Smith, the Oscar-nominated actor says

"The real pinnacle is that I'm playing an animated character in a Disney film. Isn't that the greatest? I play a native American transformed into a bear. It's called 'The Bears' Don't call me a leading man. I don't care about that. I'm a leading bear. I am content!"

Plot: Set in the Pacific Northwest before the invasion of the white man, this is the story of the youngest son (Phoenix) of a chief killed by a bear. The chief, a kind, wise and good leader, accidentally disturbed a mother bear, who killed him thinking he wanted to harm her cubs. Enraged, the young man sets out to hunt the bear himself when his older brother, the new chief, refuses to form a hunting party right away. In his hunt for vengeance however, the young man is transformed by the spirits of the forest into the very thing that he sought to slay... a bear. Seeing the world through a bear's eyes, the young man will learn valuable lessons about the cycle of life... especially when he learns that his brother has finally formed a hunting party, aiming to kill *all* bears to avenge their father's death... which means him too.

This project, in various states, has been around almost since 1994's The Lion King, though the early versions I heard, when it was called things like Untitled Disney Bear Project, were even more Lion King-ish (orphaned bear cub becomes king of the forest, etc.). The story as it stands now, with its emphasis on Native American mythology (though I don't think this is specifically based on any one legend), has more in common with Mulan. The young man-becomes-bear thing also reminds me of Franz Kafka's Metamorphosis, but then again, any story where a young man is transformed into a beast reminds me of Kafka (Disney's The Shaggy Dog, for example). Maybe as Disney's guide to world culture spins around, they'll eventually make Walt Disney Presents: Kafka's Metamorphosis, complete with singing roach, and a beautifully rendered version of paranoid Germany. More seriously, here's hoping Disney eventually considers doing a movie set in Africa that (gasp) features humans actually native to Africa. There's certainly no lack of entertaining African folktales to base such a movie on.

The animators who will work on this film flew up to Alaska during the summer of 2000 to research Kodiak bears, Native American culture, etc. That preliminary work will then become the seed of the character designs, and then in late 2001 or early 2002, actual production will start. It's a long, long process to get a lushly visual animated film to our collective big screens. Though animation is big business, the movies don't have the same sort of early buzz that say, a Star Wars or Indiana Jones movie does, so we may not hear much about this for months at a time.


The look of Brother Bear:

Early sketches of the young boy basically look like Mowgli, of the Jungle Book, but with more animal skins on.


The following is info from "Ain't It Cool News:

"The music starts with a three and a half minute ?Intro Song? that has yet to be titled. A little over a minute and a half song called "Father?s Footsteps" A long 4 minute innocuous piece called GRIZZ?S SONG, which basically is an elevator music twist on ?this can?t be my destiny?. The next two were upbeat and fun, think montage sequence showing the pleasures of being a bear, and these were two parts of the FISHING SONG, each about a minute and a half. And lastly there was the Title Song called BROTHER BEAR a long 5 and a half minute apologetic and learning to live with the past song.

Music from Phil Collins

More over the movie and Phil Collins

Release: Summer, 2004


A workplace that's a real bear

By Jim Hill
Published 11/1/01
Orlando Weekly
You'd think the animators at Disney/MGM Studios would be thrilled.

After all, the buzz swirling around Walt Disney Feature Animation Florida's next release, "Lilo & Stitch," has been nothing but positive. Test audiences seem to love this offbeat cartoon about the unlikely friendship between a 6-year-old Hawaiian girl and a genetic freak from another world. Which is why the Mouse predicts "Lilo" will do huge box office once the film hits theaters in June.

In years past this would be cause for celebration. But that was then. This is now. Disney Co. cost cutters are constantly on the prowl, and being an animator of a film that's anticipated to be a hit doesn't translate into job security anymore.

But wait, you say. They wouldn't really shut down the Central Florida animation complex, would they? They spent almost $80 million to build those animators their own state-of-the-art studio in 1998. Surely Mickey wouldn't just up and pull the plug.

Tell that to the folks at Disney's Secret Lab. These California-based animators -- who created the photo-realistic reptiles that roamed through the summer 2000 release "Dinosaurs" -- also had a state-of-the-art studio created just for them. Mickey invested more than $100 million into acquiring and then retrofitting an old Lockheed plant in Burbank with top-of-the-line equipment. The lucky artists assigned to the hi-tech facility had the very best to work with.

Of course, the Mouse only OK'd the Secret Lab because Disney execs dreamed the unit would regularly churn out films at least as artistically ambitious (or, more to the point, at least as financially successful) as Pixar's "A Bug's Life" and "Toy Story" series. But when "Dinosaurs" proved to be an expensive disappointment, Disney appeared to lose its enthusiasm for homegrown computer-animated fare.

Killed was the unit's followup project, "Wild Life," a satirical version of "Pygmalion" built around a cross-dressing pachyderm called Ella Font. And just last week Disney announced that the Secret Lab will close its doors, barely two years after it officially opened. These days, all that cutting-edge technology is only being used to update animators' resumés.

So the folks in Florida are nervous -- and more so because their already-in-production follow-up to "Lilo & Stitch" -- titled "Bears" -- is said to have story problems.

Mind you, this project's had story problems since its inception in the mid-1990s. Set in the Pacific Northwest before the white man arrived in the New World, Bears tells the somewhat mystical tale (at least by Disney standards) of Phoenix, a young Native American. This 15-year-old is angered when his father -- the tribe's kindly and wise chief -- is accidentally killed by a mother bear trying to protect her cubs.

Immediately wanting revenge, Phoenix urges his older brother -- the tribe's new chief -- to form a hunting party to kill the bear quickly. When his brother refuses, the rebellious teen rushes into the wilderness to act on his own. Wanting to teach this hot-headed young man a lesson, the spirits of the forest turn Phoenix into the very thing he wants to kill: a bear. To survive, Phoenix must befriend another bear. This wise old grizzly (not-so-originally named Griz) then tries to teach the adolescent the ways of the forest.

Naturally the angry teen comes around, learning valuable lessons about the cycle of life that come in handy when the bewitched young man learns that his brother finally has formed a hunting party. Now determined to avenge their father's death, the new chief has ordered that all bears be killed. In order to keep himself and his new friend safe, Phoenix must tap all that he remembers from his days as a human as well as what he has learned as a bear.

The movie tries to marry Native American folklore to elements borrowed from Disney's two biggest animated hits, "Beauty and the Beast" and "The Lion King." But at a test screening last month, studio execs found the first act too serious, the second act too comic and the third act just confusing. The production team was sent back to Orlando with orders to simplify their troubled storyline.

The unsaid message: Do it quickly. Rumors are flying that, among its other cost reductions, Disney wants to cut back its current two-new-animated-films-per-year production schedule. If so, the problems would make "Bears" a candidate for cancellation, putting a few more Central Florida animators out on the street.

Is it any wonder that, in spite of having an apparently sure hit movie in the can, Disney's Florida animators are feeling like they're barely hanging on themselves?

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