In the 2000s, Disney animation seemed to be flailing. Their flagship movies weren’t connecting with audiences nearly as well as Pixar’s projects and they were farming out sequels to a lot of their most popular franchises at this point. DisneyToons would release Return to NeverLand, The Jungle Book 2 and Piglet’s Big Movie around this time and the less said about these, the better.
Still, a lot of the movies in the animated canon during this time are worth a second look if you haven’t gone back to them in a while. Treasure Planet is a diamond in the rough, while Brother Bear is just about the furriest movie you could ask for — until Zootopia came along, that is.
Treasure Planet (2002)
Treasure Planet is an almost perfect movie that is nearly ruined by the comic relief character. I don’t mind them as a rule, especially if they reveal an unexpected depth or they’re used in a way that deepens the story. That’s just not the case, here; while it’s true that BEN ultimately provides the last piece of the puzzle for our heroes, it’s also true that he contributes nothing to the story and in almost every instance makes things worse. That’s really too bad, because the rest of Treasure Planet is one of the best father-son relationship stories that Disney has ever produced.
Ron Clements and John Musker (you know, the guys who also directed Moana) co-directed this remake of an Italian reimagining of Treasure Island, moving the action from the high seas to outer space. It’s actually not as hokey as it sounds; the production design is a surprisingly seamless blend of high-tech future and Victorian aesthetic populated, of course, by vaguely animalistic aliens.
Jim Hawkins is a troubled kid raised by his single mother in an inn that sees travelers come in from all over the galaxy. He longs for adventure, but that yearning all too often translates into a talent for getting into trouble. Adventure literally comes crashing through his door in the form of a huge spaceship; Jim’s given a map, told to beware the cyborg, and is immediately chased out of his entire life. Eventually he and his bumbling mentor, Dr. Doppler, commission a ship to search for the fabled Treasure Planet.
The writing for this movie is top-notch — for the most part. The exposition is obvious but well-handled, and the character moments are all extremely well-realized. When the tenuous relationship between Jim and the cyborg Long John Silver crystallizes into a surrogate father-son bond, the film really takes off. The sequence set to “I’m Still Here” is a master-class in animated storytelling, if you ask me. Their relationship forms the backbone of the movie, and even though you generally know how it’ll play out (it is, after all, Treasure Island) the emotional beats are still incredibly effective.
Once the crew arrives on Treasure Planet, they meet BEN the robot. From there, your tolerance of Martin Short channeling the worst impulses of Robin Williams will likely determine how much you’re able to enjoy the movie. As I said before, BEN is almost aggressive in his awfulness; he provides a series of needless complications that the far more competent heroes have to dig themselves out of, and the ultimate justification for his existence is…well, it’s not worth it. He’s just terrible and he sucks the joy out of nearly every scene he’s in. It’s such a bizarre misstep in a movie that had been deftly handling the high-wire act of its premise before then.
Still, don’t let BEN scare you off; Treasure Planet is a great movie that really should be appreciated more than it is. It failed badly at the box office, unable to make back its budget in theatres; critics were mildly impressed with it, but not enough to recommend rediscovering it on DVD. I think it’s underrated, but flawed, like so many of the Disney movies in the animated canon that people consider “lesser” works. The passion and creativity on display is impressive, even if there are one or two disastrous moves.
Finding Nemo (2003)
After cracking fur in 2001’s Monsters Inc., Pixar decided that they were going to sink or swim with animating water by setting an entire movie in the Pacific Ocean. The gamble paid off big time; the technical merit of Finding Nemo is almost immediately obvious, but the storytelling is really what made the movie such a smash hit. Finding Nemo takes the parent’s searching for his lost child story and crafts a parable about fear, courage, accepting and overcoming our limitations. It’s a fable that bakes its message so thoroughly into its story that learning it is part of the entertainment.
Marlin is a clownfish who lost his entire family — his wife, Coral and the clutch of eggs they were protecting — in a predator attack, except for one egg he named Nemo. The attack left Nemo with an under-developed fin, and Marlin with such an intense fear of anything dangerous that he nearly smothers his son with worry. When Nemo’s act of rebellion gets him taken by divers, Marlin is broken out of anxious paralysis to travel across the ocean and save his son. He’s joined by Dory, a blue tang with memory loss, and together they meet the strange and motley inhabitants of a world much, much bigger and wilder than they imagined.
The parallel experiences of Marlin and Nemo — who helps rescue the fish trapped inside the dentist’s aquarium he ends up in — show how capable any of us are when we push ourselves with proper motivation. Marlin learns that he needs to let go of that crippling fear in order to hold on to the one thing that matters most to him; Nemo learns that even though things might be more difficult for him because of his disability, he shouldn’t let that stop him from dreaming as big as he dares. The film doesn’t treat Nemo’s fin as a non-factor; he does have to learn how to achieve risky and dangerous things while working through a very real physical disability. However, the story doesn’t treat Nemo as incapable just because of it. He’s smart, brave and resourceful; he accepts his fin as part of who he is, but he also comes to realize he’s so much more than his disability.
It’s amazing to me that we haven’t come further with disability in stories in the 14 years since this film; that Finding Nemo still feels like a story we desperately need but rarely see is troubling. But it’s a testament to Andrew Stanton’s great skill as a storyteller that this feels like a shining example of how to get it right. Both Nemo and Dory — and Marlin for the matter; his anxiety could be viewed as a disability as well — learn how to navigate the world through their issues to become the best versions of themselves they could be. By travelling with Dory, Marlin learns that it is possible for Nemo to do great things and face danger, coming through the other side with important lessons. He also learns the depths of his resolve, and it’s a beautiful thing to see this little fish have that personal awakening.
The animation, of course, is breath-taking even after all this time. The colors are bright and engaging, the character design is gorgeous (how in the world do you make fish, with their alien physiology designed for sea life, recognizably, relatably human?), and the water effects are astonishing in an understated way. There are so many set pieces where you get swept up in the story as it unfolds, but only later you appreciate the sheer technical expertise needed to pull it off. Marlin and Dory navigate a shark-chase through a sunken submarine; an underwater mine field with really impressive explosions; and being swallowed by a whale. The fact that the animation moves so fluidly without calling attention to itself through all of this is a pretty big deal.
Pixar really has set the standard for CGI animation in this generation, and Finding Nemo is another example why. The marriage of top-notch storytelling and technical ability is rare, and it’s even more so when a studio manages to bake it into their culture so thoroughly they can consistently churn out instant classics. This is only their fifth movie in their eighth year of feature-film animation; it’s an astonishing run that no one other than Disney has ever managed.
Brother Bear (2003)
Brother Bear, perhaps unsurprisingly, began development after the surprise and run-away success of The Lion King. Michael Eisner wanted to make more animal-based pictures, and asked for one to be set in North America. Originally, they wanted to do a retelling of King Lear, which meant that the “king of the forest” would be a natural fit for the species to tell the story through. In an effort to make the film more charming, elements of the story were removed or replaced and in the end we get Brother Bear — a gently sweet film where the animation is streets ahead of the story, which actually isn’t that bad.
Kenai is the youngest of three brothers in a Native American village just recovering from the Ice Age. After being disappointed by his long-awaited totem (the bear of love), Kenai and his brothers hunt down a bear that had stolen their salmon catch. The hunt goes disastrously, and his oldest brother sacrifices himself to save his siblings; Kenai is thought to be lost as well sometime later, and the middle brother Denahi swears revenge on the bear who took his brothers. In reality, the spirits have turned Kenai into a bear so he can learn a lesson about the perspective of the other.
The film becomes a road-trip buddy comedy. Kenai picks up Koda, an orphaned cub trying to make it to the annual salmon run, which is like a big family reunion for bears. Along the way, the bears meet a lot of different forest animals and save each other from various natural hazards. Just when Koda and Kenai click, Kenai realizes that he’s responsible for the death of Koda’s mother; not only does he have to make amends for what he’s done, he also has to find a way to keep his brother Denahi from killing him and his new-found friends.
Brother Bear is incredibly earnest, and that’s not a bad thing. I really like its message, even if it’s not particularly subtle or woven through the story with much of the skill we’ve gotten used to in Pixar films. The humor is pretty juvenile, though, so it feels made for a younger audience as opposed to being a true family film. As a huge fan of bears, I’m willing to handle that — especially considering that Kenai chooses to remain a bear at the end of the film. The animation and character design are great, and the nifty storytelling trick of changing the aspect ratio along with Kenai’s form is perhaps the most clever way they bake the premise of the story (learning to see things from a different perspective) into the form of the story itself.
Still, there’s a lot that doesn’t work. Phil Collins writes and performs music for his second Disney animated film here, but the songs aren’t nearly as catchy as they were in Tarzan and they’re mostly unwelcome intrusions into emotional scenes. Just when things are starting to come together and you feel yourself getting emotionally invested, here comes Phil to really hammer the theme home. A lighter, defter touch would have gone a long way here and allowed the movie to stand beyond the pleasure of its premise and visuals.
Brother Bear really is one of the lesser movies of the Disney animated canon, and that’s largely due to the flaws in its storytelling. The look and feel of the world it creates is great; you really want to spend time there. But the way the story is told prevents us from falling into it completely; we’re reminded way too often of the construction of it when we really don’t want to notice the seams. Unlike Finding Nemo, Brother Bear calls attention to itself, asking you to be impressed with the effort instead of allowing you to be dazzled on your own.