Brother Bear (2003) Review

Brother Bear Poster 2

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 officially grown tired and stale 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 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” at the time 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. 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 – even more than your average Disney movie – 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 film. 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, hotheaded hunter who’s looking for his place in the world, and is not that fond of the local predators (our fellow omnivores) bears. Kenai’s fear grows into outright prejudice after his eldest brother is killed by one in a lethal bear attack, so he slays the beast for revenge 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, self-centered teen still hurting from the loss of his brother, but through a spiritual journey he starts to broaden his perspective, bit by bit, make peace with his brother’s passing, and in time regain who he used to be through friendship and grow into someone even better. 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” (like “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 himself, he despairingly finds he’s dug himself into quite a hole and hurt everyone closest to him (indirectly causing Sitka’s death, making Koda an orphan, planting the seeds for Denahi’s madness) with nary a thing he can do now to fix any of it. It something that helps Kenai stand out as a protagonist, very few Disney characters hit this low of a point. And in a nice subversion of the usual liar revealed plot, Kenai chooses to come clean to Koda about everything, despite what it’ll do, because his young friend deserves to know the truth about his mother. In the end, Kenai redeems himself in a manner that begins to mend his bond with Koda and pushes him the rest of the way to being 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. It’s an ending that’s the very antithesis of “The Hunchback Of Notre Dame’s” opening, and like Katejohns619 stated, a fairly optimistic ending to one of Disney’s darker stories.

Kenai and Koda 2

Jeremy Suarez has impeccable comic timing as Koda. Right from the off, when he’s beating our 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, talkative young bear cub who doesn’t much like being alone. I think the thing I like the most about him isn’t just the chipper presence he has in the film (which feels needed after how dark the first act became), but how plainspoken he is. He’s type to tell it how it is, and that’s exactly the sort of friend Kenai needs (if not the one he wants at first). It soon becomes clear Koda loves having the older bear around: someone to tell stories to and play on tricks on and share adventures with. In time, as his prejudice towards bears ebbs away and despite how macho he is, Kenai warms to the cub (since their personalities really aren’t that different) and starts treating him much the way I imagine his own brothers treated him when he was young. In fact, the budding friendship between Kenai and Koda is the reason why “Brother Bear” resonated with me for over a decade when other Post-Renaissance films didn’t. It’s funny, it’s sweet, and at the time I had never seen anything like it before in a Disney movie. Sibling love, conventional or otherwise, is something Disney’s 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. 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, 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 badass). Koda too gains the gift of nuance, which ultimately helps the cub to move forward.

Kenai and Koda 4

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 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. McKenzie moose, Rutt and Tuke, are really too good for this world at times. They strike a nice balance between being affable and outgoing and being self-involved, living in their own little world for most of the movie and being largely uninterested in the main plot, and while this attitude can be annoying for some, I love it, especially whenever they’re bored or taking the piss out of Kenai. The laidback Canadian moose also tie into the movie’s main theme of brotherhood and wind up saving Kenai’s ass at the end without even really trying to. The older I get, the more I feel bad for Sitka. 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. I think it’s a nice touch that Sitka manages to influence the entire plot, even after death. Despite caring for them deeply, after blood has been spilt Sitka decides to show his bros some tough love and let the pair fight it out for most of the movie so they can both grow from the experience (while keeping tabs on them of course). It gives this already wise, benevolent character a stern edge and the film another interesting element to pay off at the end. Acting as a sort of darker mirror to Kenai and a physical consequence of his actions, middle brother Denahi is also lost for most of the film. Denahi struggles to live up to his totem and believes he’s lost both of his brothers to the wilderness, that he’s failed them, causing him to go even more insane with grief, guilt and rage than Kenai had for much, much longer. As a consequence to the movie devoting most of it’s second and third acts to Kenai and Koda, “Brother Bear” threatens to lose Denahi’s plot thread from the first act several times before bringing it home for the climax. I actually think Denahi is the least interesting character of the bunch, but to the dude’s credit, he adapts to magical transformations and his brother leaving him to go live with bears a lot better than you would expect him to.


Wilderness of danger and beauty.

The animation in this film is quite luscious. While the background work in the first act was already impressive, with a number of a mountain vistas reflecting the mood of each scene, from Kenai’s transformation onwards “Brother Bear” has a rich, warm, earthy color palette, bursting with little details, that’s suitably picturesque and quite soothing for a wilderness film. 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. It’s also around the salmon run scenes that I start to realize how much I like the film’s sense of humor. Phil Collins, Tina Turner, and the Blind Boys Of Alabama provide the rustic songs for the movie, and they’re very effective for the most part; sometimes even powerful. “Great Spirits” is a strong performance from Turner that lays down some of themes of the film. Collins singing with Kenai and Koda’s inner voices works well for “On My Way” and “Welcome” and expands on their characters, but not as much for “No Way Out”, 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 Native chant by the Bulgarian Women’s Choir that accompanies Kenai’s transformation (both of his transformations) 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.

“Brother Bear” is one of Disney’s more divisive films – par for the course for the era of which it came from – and I proudly fall in the camp of people who enjoy this movie as a sibling story and recommend it to others who have never seen it. After all these years, I’m also glad that the concept of bears and brotherhood has unexpectedly lived on in “We Bare Bears“.

We Bare Bears

As you can see, I had fun with this entry.

Rating: 9/10.

Side Notes:

Rutt and Tuke

* Bambi, Bambi’s mom and Lilo all make cameos early on.

* “Your totem is… love!” “…Wut?”

* Can’t you just feel the love?

* “I don’t blame the bear, Kenai!” Oh damn, son!

* Man vs Nature, Round Two.

* This movie has so many laughs at Kenai’s expense. Karma’s a bitch, hon.

* “That bear… over there… he’s crazy…” “I am not CRAZY!” “Wha- whoever said you were?”

* “You swear?” “Yeah“.

* “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 1. they suck at fighting just as much they do and 2. they’re the ones Denahi is actually 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 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!” When you accept the world you live in is a strange one, but you decide to just let yourself enjoy yourself.

* “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 dead.

* “Sorry, you’ve been replaced by my dear brother… oh gee, I forgot your name. What’s your name, little bear?”

* Bear hugs are even sweeter with actual bears.

* Bear-fu and moose yoga.

* 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 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.

* Nicely played, Pixar.

Further Reading:


Northern Lights

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4 Responses to Brother Bear (2003) Review

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