First Theatrical Release: November 1, 2003
First Home Viewing Release: March 30, 2004
My Rating: 4/5 stars
Where I Found It: Netflix streaming
Bechdel Test Score: Passed? There is only one female character, Tanana, but at the beginning she talks to a little girl about how big she’s grown, which constitutes a conversation between two females that does not revolve around a man.
Brother Bear is yet another movie from this era that I went to in the theater and then forgot promptly afterward. It’s a decent offering with a few very awkward moments and a surprisingly heavy message in a movie that you might expect to be, well, cuddly.
Based on what I remembered and what I’d read online, I expected this movie’s main theme to be about brotherhood. And on the surface it seems like that’s what it is about — although it ultimately ends up going much deeper than that. We’ll start with the bros and go from there.
Brotherhood – Or, how Only Males Existed in the Ice Age
I’ve heard people who have brothers say that this movie is a realistic portrayal of that relationship. I can’t speak to that, although I didn’t have a ton of patience for all the heckling that went on between the three boys at the beginning of the film, especially after Kenai receives his totem. Sure, the “bear of love” sounds cheesy, but I found it a little distressing that a family movie portrayed love as something dudes can’t take seriously, even if that doesn’t end up being the movie’s final message. But the story takes a turn for the dark very quickly — Disney has killed off enough parents, and now it’s decided to move on to sibling deaths. I did not remember that Kenai’s oldest brother Sitka dies within the first 20 minutes of the movie — I probably blocked it out because losing a sibling is one of the most horrifying things I can imagine.
This sets Kenai on a mission of vengence to kill the bear supposedly responsible for his brother’s death (even though it was his own immaturity that angered the bear when he threw a rock at it), which ultimately brings his brother’s spirit down to change him into a bear so he can learn some important lessons. His living brother, Denahi, mistakenly believes Kenai has also been killed by a bear and sets out to kill Kenai-turned-bear in revenge. Thus our hero’s journey begins.
What’s interesting from this point on is how the theme of brotherhood permeates nearly every encounter Kenai has. Very early he meets up with Koda, a bear who has been separated from his mother, and they fall into a relationship very much like one might expect from an adolescent boy with a pre-school brother — mostly annoyed with moments of tenderness. Two recurring moose characters with their bickering brother relationship provide comic relief throughout the movie (if you think they’re actually funny, that is, which I didn’t — more on that later.) Two squirrels arguing over an acorn could be brothers, as could two rams butting heads over a lady. Until Kenai and Koda reach the salmon run, every animal they encounter is male, and all seem to have brothers, with the strange mixture of affection and irritation that characterizes sibling relationships.
So, this story must be about the importance of brotherhood/family, right? That’s what I assumed, until the movie took a dark turn I did not expect.
What It’s Really About
As Kenai and Koda continue their journey, a narrative unfolds about seeing the world through different eyes. Kenai is shocked when they come across a rock picture of a hunter going after a bear with a spear, and Koda tells Kenai that “those monsters” are “really scary.” Kenai makes a feeble effort to defend his species, then takes the first step everyone coming out of prejudice takes: he admits that not all bears are bad, and that he and Koda are not “like that.”
By the time they arrive at the salmon run, Kenai and Koda have properly bonded, and Kenai enjoys the sense of community and family as some upbeat, sentimental music plays in the background. By now he’s ready to accept, aha, bears have families and communities and just want to go about their lives unmolested, just like human folks. The bears exchange stories in a ritualistic fashion, until Koda gets his turn to tell how he got separated from his mother — something he has been “saving” for this occasion. He has still not been reunited with her, but assumes he must have “beat her” to the salmon run.
As he tells his story, the movie that opened with a sibling’s death takes an even darker turn: through a combination of Koda’s words and Kenai’s flashbacks, we learn that the bear Kenai slew at the beginning of the movie was Koda’s mother.
It’s a bit of a downer, to say the least.
Now Kenai is not only saddled with the guilt of having killed a creature that never had any intent to harm him, and one that in many ways is “just like him,” but he also must cope with the realization that he has orphaned his young friend. There’s no coming back from that. And he is the only one who can tell Koda the truth.
The scenes that follow are truly heart-wrenching. Not only is Koda devastated to learn that his mother will never join him at the salmon run, but he’s also lost his rosy perception of his pal Kenai. Now, he sees a murderer and not a “big brother” when he looks at him.
It is in this development that the film moves beyond being a movie about “brotherhood” or even about “family.” Both of these ideas can be presented in ways that are as warm and fuzzy as a teddy bear. But instead, the movie’s message is much weightier than learning to appreciate your loved ones: it is about how we manage to atone for the unforgivable sins we commit. And whether it is possible to atone for them at all.
After Sitka deems Kenai’s lesson properly learned, he transforms him briefly back into a human so that his remaining brother can see it’s been him all along. This imparts all the lessons Kenai has been learning onto Denahi, who has been pursuing revenge the whole time, through a sort of osmosis process.
Their reunion is short-lived, though. Kenai asks Sitka’s spirit if he can return to his bear form so that he can raise Koda.
This isn’t the only Disney movie where we see a last-minute transformation. Ariel returns to her human form at the end of The Little Mermaid, but it is the self she has always wanted. Hercules rejects the mantle of godhood he has spent the whole movie chasing, which is a closer parallel to Kenai’s decision, as Kenai has also spent most of his quest hoping to resume his human form. Hercules remains human so he can stay with Meg, which is still the sort of happy ending he’s been pursuing even if he didn’t know exactly what that would be. But Kenai does not return to the form that he feels represents his “true self,” nor does he get a sexy lady in return for his efforts. There is the sense that returning to his bear life is not the choice he WANTS to make — but in light of what he’s done, it’s the only choice he CAN make. He’s orphaned Koda, and the only way to make amends is to parent him in turn.
This is a different message than we’ve received from Disney thus far. It’s not about “following your heart” as almost every other finale has been. It’s about manning up and doing the right thing, even if it may not be what you want. It’s a movie that sells itself as being about the power of love — but what it is really about is the pull of responsibility.
This is not a bad thing. “Love” is amorphous and can be manipulated into a million shapes to justify the action that one really wants to take. Responsibility is more of a clear line in the sand, something you must accept and, once accepted, bear with dignity. (No pun intended.)
Anachronisms R Us
The awkwardness of early character deaths and a weighty moral message juxtaposed with an adorable baby bear and a handful of silly animal encounters may be the reason this movie did not do particularly well. It’s easy for the crowd looking for a more “serious” movie to write off; it can be depressing for those seeking a cute animal flick. And while lots of Disney movies tell their stories in ways that are anachronistic to their settings, in this movie it feels particularly jarring. In the directors’ commentary on The Hunchback of Notre Dame, they mention that the Disney “rule” is that magical creatures are allowed to do and know things the other characters couldn’t get away with. That’s why Genie can morph into characters from 20th Century movies, and why the gargoyles can play poker in Medieval Paris. But the only “magic” in this movie is the transformation magic, performed by the spirits of those who have gone before, which is decidedly NOT humorous.
So instead, we get our comic relief through anachronistic talking animals. Except the fact that the animals talk doesn’t make them magic by default — because they can only talk to one another, not humans. Yet, in a movie that is clearly set in the ice age (we see lots of woolly mammoths), we have moose with (sort of offensive) Canadian accents and jokes related to road trips (“I Spy,” “asking for directions,” etc.) And it just doesn’t work in a movie with themes as weighty as this one.
I found myself cringing at the moments meant to be humorous, then shocked by the heavy ones. It’s this sort of mismatch that makes this movie, despite some beautiful animation and important themes, feel as if it never really finds its footing. It’s got an identity crisis about as bad as a boy who doesn’t-want-to-be-a-bear/bear-who-wants-to-be-a-man/man-who-wants-to-be-a-bear-again.