Brother Bear – H Clark Wakabayashi

Brother Bear was the 44th animated feature film by Disney and this book tells the story of how the film was made rather than telling the story in the film. I must admit that I have never seen the film, which was released in 2003, but that was not really important as I was interested in the creative development involved in making an animated feature and a quick flick through suggested that buying this book would give me the insight I was looking for. In fact the book told me much more about the somewhat odd personal development methods at Disney and their willingness to throw staff in at the deep end to see how they get on.

The book is an unusual landscape format is the 2003 first edition and is part of the Welcome Book series from Disney Editions. These books are dedicated to the making of various animated films from Disney and after reading this one I’m tempted to see if I can find more titles. The landscape format allows for the format of the images to be shown better although it does make the book somewhat unwieldy and also produces extra stress on the binding which has already resulted in the pages dropping at the far end so that they rest on the shelf rather than being held straight as originally bound.

The book starts with the determination of one animator, Aaron Blaise, to work on this movie from when it had been just a suggestion of a project that might go ahead. At that time it was to be loosely based on Shakespeare’s play King Lear, so an old bear with three daughters and it would be anthropomorphic like the much earlier Robin Hood with the animals dressed up like humans. Blaise didn’t like this idea and kept pushing, whenever he got a chance, for a more realistic treatment and for him to be involved as one of the animators. Eventually he was called to a meeting with a senior executive and rather than being offered an animators job he was asked to direct the film despite having no experience of directing. At this point there was no script and no real idea as to what the film would look like it was up to Blaise to come up with potential plot summaries and designs and put them in front of the executives who could agree to fund the production. After floundering for several months he was eventually assigned a co director, Bob Walker, to help although Walker hadn’t directed before either. The more you read the more you wonder how Disney ever come to make any movies at all. Eventually they gained a producer, Chuck Williams, who did know what he was doing and progress started to be made although they still didn’t have a script.

Gradually though the film starts to come together and the idea of transformation of a human into a bear, although how and why remained unclear and that human having to learn to live as a bear. For probably three quarters of the films development he is assisted in this by an old bear named Grizz and this got as far as being animated and even the voice of this bear being recorded and a song written by Phil Collins about the growing friendship between our hero and Grizz. All of this was scrapped very near the end of scheduled production and the old bear was replaced by a young cub named Koda who would be much more appealing to the potential audience. The cub idea came from the much more experienced team of animators in Los Angeles whilst Blaise and his team were in Florida and they held out for Grizz mainly due to the huge amount of work that had already gone into him and they felt tied to this way of the story. The two teams communicated via regular video conferences which were getting more and more fractious to the point that the cartoon below by one of the team of animators, Nathan Greno, was drawn to sum up how the conferences were going.

Eventually Blaise, Walker and Williams were convinced that the cub idea solved a lot of the story problems and a story editor was finally assigned to the movie years after they started making it and this turned the whole production around. The book is fascinating for the details of the conflicts and issues that occurred during the six years the film took to make and just how late in the process the whole project could be totally revised. I’ll have to watch the film now and see if I can spot areas where the whole plot changed direction from the numerous failed attempts to come up with a viable story.

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