I grew up during the 2000’s, so my first ever exposure to Disney films were the movies of the Post-Renaissance era; a time when Disney tried to move away from their once popular renaissance formula that had just about run it’s course in “Tarzan” with a string of surreal, experimental films. These days I admire the ambition and creativity of movies like “Atlantis: The Lost Empire”, “The Emperor’s New Groove”, “Treasure Planet” and “Lilo and Stitch“, more so than later films from the second half of the same decade which played things far too safe and didn’t take any chances, but the movies in question were a mixed bag, drifting all over the place in terms of quality. My favorite of the bunch was always “Brother Bear” – in fact, it was the only one at the time to have a real lasting impact on me and it still holds up strongly today. Michael Eisner’s frequent attempts to make a “boy’s movie” during the period finally paid off, though not without a few drawbacks.
“Brother Bear’s” structure can catch you off guard the first time through. The first act is essentially twenty-four minutes of well-done, immersive world-building and set-up with the story really beginning on Kenai’s first day as a bear, swapping the human world and the human cast for an animal’s perspective for the rest of the film. It also has one of the world’s most obvious plot twists involving Koda’s mom, which will be fooling no one. The only reason it isn’t more of a problem in the film is because the movie’s focus is firmly on building up Kenai and Koda’s friendship and not waiting for the other shoe to drop on that revelation for the next two acts. Really though, I think a large decider in how much you like this film is how much you like the main characters, Kenai and Koda, since it’s their friendship and their relationship that ultimately forms the emotional core of the movie. And I can safely say that I like them. I like them a lot.
The youngest of three native brothers, Joaquin Phoenix’s Kenai is a brash, fun-loving, adventurous and hotheaded hunter who’s looking for his place in the world. Since he’s coming of age, he’s looking forward to becoming a man, without actually knowing what that entails. On top of being annoyed by his older brother’s needling, he’s also not that fond of the local predators (our fellow omnivores) bears. Kenai’s fear of bears grows into outright prejudice after his eldest brother is killed by one in a lethal bear attack, so he tracks down the beast and slays it for revenge, ignoring his head and instincts – only to be turned into an animal by the local spirits, so he can walk in a mile in a bear’s shoes and learn a lesson in empathy. For the first half of the film, Kenai is an immature and self-centered teen still hurting from the loss of his brother; he’s stubborn and misguided but he’s not unlikable and you want to see him become a better person than he currently is. Through a spiritual journey and an irrevocable change in the status quo, Kenai is forced to challenge what he believes in. With every new encounter, he starts to broaden his perspective, bit by bit. He comes to make peace with his brother’s passing, and in time regains who he used to be through his friendship with Koda while also growing into someone even better. By the second half of the film, he’s become a more laidback character who embraces the surrealness of the animal kingdom, and grows to be more responsible by increasingly prioritizing Koda’s needs over his own. His character arc progresses naturally for the kind of guy he is, and I found myself very invested in it, especially since this movie can get damnably intense.
Interestingly enough, despite there being no real ‘villain’ in “Brother Bear” with malicious intent (the same as “Lilo and Stitch”), one can easily argue Kenai is the real antagonist of this movie, since he sets off everyone’s problems, including his own. When Kenai grows enough as a person to make this discovery for himself, he despairingly finds he’s dug himself into quite a hole and hurt everyone closest to him (whether it’s putting Sitka in a position where he’d need to sacrifice himself for him, making Koda an orphan, or planting the seeds for madness in Denahi’s head) with nary a thing he can do now to fix any of it. It’s something that helps Kenai to stand out as a protagonist – very few Disney characters have arcs that build to them realizing they’ve become a bad guy and very few of them hit this low of a point. In a refreshing subversion of the usual liar revealed plot, Kenai chooses to come clean to Koda about everything, despite knowing what it’ll do, because his young friend deserves to know the truth about his mother. For a while, it seems as though Kenai will just have to live with having become a bad person, or just be killed by his vengeful brother. But in the end, a humbled, remorseful and wiser Kenai does redeem himself in a manner that starts to mend his bond with Koda and pushes him the rest of the way towards becoming a man – owning up to one’s mistakes and doing whatever you can to fix them is an important part of being an adult after all. Kenai choosing to remain a bear for the rest of his life, so he can stay with Koda, is an ending that’s the very antithesis of “The Hunchback Of Notre Dame’s” opening, and a a fairly optimistic ending to one of Disney’s darker stories.
Jeremy Suarez has impeccable comic timing as Koda. Right from the off, when he’s beating our clueless lead with a stick, he’s hilarious (“It’s no use. The only way to get down is to chew your own foot off.”). Koda is a worldly, precocious and talkative young bear cub. He’s extroverted and rambunctious, as he lives to have new experiences and meet new people, but he doesn’t like being on his own much and as a result he winds up clinging to Kenai a bit. I think the thing I like the most about him isn’t just the chipper presence he has in the film (which honestly feels needed after how dark the first act became) or his earnest desire to please, but how plainspoken he is. He’s type to be frank and tell it how it is, and that’s exactly the sort of friend Kenai needs (if not the one he wants at first), though this can lead to Koda having his own moments of shortsightedness and insensitivity, giving him some flaws. All in all, Koda is usually very sincere in most of the things he does, he’s a good friend and he’s knowledgeable about forest life, which makes him endearing. It soon becomes clear Koda loves having the older bear around: someone to tell stories to and play tricks on and share adventures with. In time, as the formerly macho Kenai thaws and his prejudice towards bears ebbs away, he warms up to the cub (since their core personalities as the annoying but earnest younger siblings really aren’t that different) and starts treating him much the way I imagine Kenai’s own brothers treated him when he was young. He starts entertaining the idea of being a sibling figure to the cub, like Koda hopes he would be.
In fact, the budding friendship between Kenai and Koda is the reason why “Brother Bear” resonated with me for over a decade when several other post-renaissance films didn’t. It’s funny, it’s sweet, the film takes its time to develop it well and gradually, and at the time I had never seen anything like it before in a Disney movie. Prior to 2002, sibling relationships were not something the studio seemed all that interested in, save for Wendy Darling and her brothers in “Peter Pan“. But sibling love (conventional or otherwise) is something Disney has begun to explore in depth since the new millennium, in films like “Lilo and Stitch”, “Brother Bear”, “Wreck-It Ralph“, “Big Hero 6” and “Frozen“, and I have to say, I love this trend. Because I adore the bond that forms between our two leads, smallish bear and his adoptive big bro, the last act is one of the saddest and most touching things I’ve seen from Disney. Koda’s fear of human hunters is a minor plot point throughout the movie, and something he can ironically connect with Kenai about. In a rather painful parallel to Kenai conquering his fear of bears and learning the world isn’t as simple as he thought, poor Koda discovers his traveling buddy is really one of the big bad hunters he fears and has cost him dearly. He’s forced to see him as either a heartless killer or a friend who fucked up (with the knowledge that his mother had a part in Kenai’s brother’s death being a further complication), and when the time comes he spares him the fate of being gutted by his brother (one many wouldn’t have begrudged him of) because he doesn’t want to lose anyone else important to him (also because he’s a little badass). Koda too gains the gift of nuance, which ultimately helps the cub to move forward.
Something the film does well is flesh out the respective communities of the human and animal worlds. The village Kenai hails from has it’s own customs and traditions that are fascinating from what little we see of them. The tribe looks to the spirits of their ancestors for guidance – with the shaman woman, Tanana, acting as a bridge between the living and the dead – and when each member comes of age, they place their handprint alongside that of their ancestors. The natives hunt animals for food, but respect them as fellow creatures nonetheless (in fact, Kenai’s lack of respect for the wildlife is part of the reason why he’s transformed). The animals in the “Brother Bear” universe tend to be as extroverted and opinionated as Koda, and the bears the cub is familiar with at the Salmon run, like Tug, have a robust sort of charisma to them. The laidback and carefree McKenzie moose, Rutt and Tuke, are really too good for this world at times. Easygoing and amusingly cowardly, they strike a nice balance between being affable and outgoing and being self-involved. They live in their own little world for most of the movie are largely uninterested in the main plot, occasionally getting into petty squabbles, which proves to be both strange and hilarious, especially whenever they’re bored or just taking the piss out of Kenai. Rutt and Tuke do have hearts though, and a soft spot for Koda that’s somewhat understated. The Canadian moose also tie into the movie’s main theme of brotherhood; they pass on an important nugget of wisdom to Koda before the climax and wind up saving Kenai’s ass at the end without even really trying to, so I’m glad we saw more of them in the sequel and their unusual friendship with Kenai and Koda.
The older I get, the more I feel bad for Sitka, the oldest of Kenai’s siblings and the protector of their little family. Kenai and Denahi look like they’re teens but they act more like twelve year olds that he has to keep in line, and then he dies in the first fifteen minutes of the movie. Sitka fills the role of the levelheaded brother, but he’s not above having fun or whacking his younger siblings upside the head, and once he’s gone and the family is destabilized Kenai and Denahi are both forced to grow up. I think it’s a nice touch that Sitka manages to influence the entire plot, even after death. He also proves to be a tad ruthless and something of a chessmaster. Despite caring for them deeply, after blood has been spilt Sitka decides to show his bros some tough love. When he and the other spirits transform Kenai, he lets Denahi think Kenai is dead and that bear-Kenai killed him so the pair will fight it out for most of the movie (with Koda caught in the middle) as he keeps tabs on them. He even leads Denahi to Kenai to fire up the climax, and while the movie makes it clear he wouldn’t have let any of them die, he does wait until the last possible second to intervene. Sitka basically plays a very dangerous long game in the background of the movie, in the hopes of making both his bros better people. This subplot gives an already wise and benevolent character a stern edge and the film another interesting element to pay off at the end.
Acting as both a darker mirror to Kenai and a physical consequence of his actions, the middle brother Denahi is also lost for most of the film. Denahi’s temperament is initially somewhere between Sitka’s (trying to be the responsible brother), and Kenai’s (but being immature nonetheless), as he tries to live up to his totem. Kenai and Denahi’s relationship is a bit strained – since Denahi considers Kenai to be a troublemaker and Kenai feels Denahi doesn’t respect him, giving the youngest brother an inferiority complex – and eventually it’s pushed to it’s limit. When Sitka is killed and Kenai ‘dies’ as well soon after, claimed by the wilderness as a result of Denahi being a bad brother, he sorts of snaps, feeling like he’s failed them. Over the course of the movie, he goes even more insane with grief, guilt and rage than Kenai had for much, much longer and tries to hunt the bear bros down, becoming the greatest threat in the film. By the climax, there’s not that much of him left. As a consequence to the movie devoting most of its second and third acts to developing Kenai and Koda’s friendship and fleshing out the animal kingdom, “Brother Bear” threatens to lose Denahi’s plot thread from the first act several times, in-between his periodic attempts to kill the bear brothers, before it brings it all home for the climax. I’m actually not as interested in Denahi as I am most of the other main characters in this movie, but there is genuine pathos to his storyline, and by the end I’m always impressed with how well he handles the notion of magical transformations and the news that his brother is leaving him for good to go live with bears.
The animation in this film is quite luscious, and overall it’s one of the most visually appealing films from the post-renaissance era. The background work in the first act is already pretty impressive, with a number of vast, iridescent mountain vistas reflecting the mood of each scene (Sitka’s somber funeral is a heavy highlight). But from Kenai’s transformation onwards, “Brother Bear” has a rich, warm, earthy color palette, bursting with minute little details, that’s suitably picturesque and quite soothing for a wilderness film. The whole world of the film really comes alive once we start seeing it from an animal’s eyes. The Alaskan wilderness is such a gorgeous region of the world, and that really shines through as we journey through it with the bears, from warm, cool and inviting mornings in the forest, to harsh, frozen, desolate mountain peaks. All the shimmering, encompassing artwork of the Aurora Borealis is especially beautiful, including a shot at the end of Sitka and Koda’s mother returning to the Northern lights. One often overlooked detail about the animation that I really appreciate is how effortlessly bouncy the animals’ fur always remains, specifically with the bear and moose characters.
Phil Collins, Tina Turner, and the Blind Boys Of Alabama provide the rustic, woodsy songs for the movie, and they’re very effective for the most part; sometimes even powerful. “Great Spirits” is a strong and engrossing performance from Tina Turner that lays down some of themes of the film. Phil Collins singing with Kenai and Koda’s inner voices works well for “On My Way” (the bears’ rambunctious road trip song about Koda’s inner optimism) and “Welcome” (the hearty and earnest fishing song about community) by expanding on their characters, but not as well for “No Way Out” (the song about Kenai’s inner turmoil), which, for a moment, makes Kenai’s confession feel like a Phil Collins music video. I think the most distinctive and memorable song is the passionate, ethereal and sweeping native chant by the Bulgarian Women’s Choir that accompanies Kenai’s transformation (both of his transformations, actually) and represents hope for change and enlightenment. In addition to the songs, Phil Collins and Mark Mancina compose a riveting, percussion-laden score for the film, particularly during the tense cues, with stirring, woodwind renditions of the songs cropping up from time to time, marking the characters’ progress. The strongest number of the lot, “Look Through My Eyes”, is the end credits song, which manages to cap off the film’s message with just the right amount of warmth, optimism and sappiness I described liking earlier.
Flawed in places, but brimming with humor and heart, “Brother Bear” is an underrated highlight of the post-renaissance era, and an endearing story about friendship and family. And after all these years, I’m glad to see the concept of bears and brotherhood has lived on in “We Bare Bears”.
As you can see, I had fun with this entry.
* “Your totem is… love!” “…Wut?”
* “I don’t blame the bear, Kenai!” Oh damn, son!
* Man vs nature, round two!
* Like Koda, Denahi makes for a good foil to Kenai. On the one hand, the spirits intervene and prevent Kenai from spiraling further down the dark and violent path he was on, regaining his better nature through his friendship with Koda, while Denahi has no one and eventually loses himself almost entirely. And on the other hand, Denahi is just barely spared having the stain of murder on his conscience, while Kenai has already passed that point and has to live with the guilt for the rest of his life.
* “That bear… over there… he’s crazy…” “I am not CRAZY!” “Wha- whoever said you were?”
* “You swear?” “Yeah” Kenai’s random valley girl voice.
* “Are you sure your mom didn’t ditch you, Kod-duh?” Oh wow, Kenai and Koda must just look back on that memory and cringe.
* “Tell everybody I’m on my way, new friends and new places to see! With blue skies ahead yes I’m on my way, and there’s no one else that I’d rather be!”
* Rutt and Tuke track down Kenai and Koda for protection from the hunter, unaware that one, they suck at fighting just as much they do, and two, they’re the ones Denahi is after. More irony.
* I never knew I wanted to see bears riding mammoths until this movie.
* “What was your brother’s name?” “Sitka” “Well, thanks Sitka, if it weren’t for you, I never would have met Kenai” Daw. I really do enjoy this first talk about Sitka. It’s a nice reminder that Kenai’s brother died only a few days ago and he hasn’t really dealt with it in healthy way yet. You’ll notice this is the point in the film where he starts to become less surly.
* “Tree” “No, you have to-” “Oh, it counts” “No, it-” ‘It counts!” “Fine …Tree” “Let’s just play something else”.
* “Enough with the stories, I don’t care about the time you and Binky found like, ‘the world’s biggest pine cone ever!'” “Okay, first, his name’s Bucky, not ‘Binky’. Second, it wasn’t a pine cone, it was a pine nut, and it was huge, even bigger than your fat head!”
* Denahi screeching ‘NO!’ is unintentionally hilarious.
* Kenai’s screams of terror. Bless.
* “This has to be the most beautiful, the most peaceful place I’ve ever been to, it’s nothing like I’ve ever seen before. When I think of how far I’ve come I can’t believe it, yet I see it. In them I see family, I see the way we used to be!”
* “This year, I lost my dear husband Edgar-” “Quit telling everyone I’m dead!” “Sometimes I can still hear his voice!” The birth of a meme.
* “If only Edgar was alive” “I told you, woman, I’m right here!”
* Kenai actually hits his lowest point twice in this movie, for different reasons. Once when he commits bear murder, and again when he has to tell Koda why his mom is gone. On that note, I do like the fake-out where it seems like Kenai has been killed trying to save Koda one last time, because in a different and perhaps lazier movie that would be the end of Kenai’s character arc and development. Instead, “Brother Bear” opts for the better choice and lets him have to live with the consequence of his actions.
* “Sorry, you’ve been replaced by my dear brother… oh gee, I forgot your name. What’s your name, little bear?”
* “No, you shut up!” Poor stupid rams.
* “All the things that you can change, there’s a meaning in everything, and you will find all you need, there’s so much understand!”
* Y’know, there might actually be an in-universe explanation for why “Brother Bear” is a goofier film whenever Denahi’s not around. He’s telling this story, including the parts he couldn’t possibly know about because he wasn’t there and his brothers never told him anything (one of them was dead and the other one was busy at the time). He would have had to have filled in some blanks, including what he imagined the animal kingdom to be like. For all we know, the old man has been bullshitting us the whole time.
* Koda’s not quite as innocent as he looks, since he’s covering up a sentient fish massacre.
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