Movie Review: Brother Bear

DVD Cover Copyright Disney

DVD Cover Copyright Disney

Brother Bear was theatrically released on November 1, 2003 as the forty-fourth full-length animated feature in Disney history. The flick is eighty-five minutes in length. Brother Bear was followed by a direct-to-DVD sequel, Brother Bear 2, which was released on August 9, 2006.

Plot Summary

In post-ice age North America, a young Inuit named Kenai is preparing for what should be the proudest day of his life, the day when Tanana, the village shaman, will present him with the totem that will reveal his leading virtue, chosen by the spirits of the tribal ancestors. Many excellent virtues exist; Kenai’s eldest brother, Sitka, for example, was blessed with guidance, and the middle brother, Denahi, received wisdom. Other potential virtues include courage, patience, and beauty. So, what virtue is bestowed within Kenai?

The result, love, angers Kenai for two reasons. First, to him, love does not seem like a masculine quality, and Denahi teases him about it. Secondly, and more importantly, the corresponding totem is a bear. Kenai sees bears as little more than aggressive monsters. As fate would have it, Kenai is soon threatened by a bear, and though the young man survives, Sitka is killed in the scuffle.

Devastated over Sitka’s death, Kenai successfully seeks revenge, hunting down and killing a bear. The score is now even, so the issue is settled, right? Maybe; maybe not. The spirits must decide that question, and Kenai will have to live with their judgment.

Empathy

Empathy, the ability to put yourself in the proverbial shoes of another being, is the major theme of Brother Bear. This message is more obvious than subliminal. Kenai deems bears worthless monsters until he becomes a bear and is forced to deal with a persistent hunter, Denahi. Conversely, a bear cub named Koda believes humans to be the worthless monsters because a hunter killed his mother.

So, are humans or bears the real monsters? There is no right or wrong answer here. It is a perspective-based question. Kenai and Koda each gain perspective and empathy for the situation of their counterpart as they travel together. Sometimes experience destroys preconceived notions.

Sibling Rivalry

Oftentimes in real life, brothers fight for nonsensical reasons. The Yankees are better than the Mets, brother! No, they are not, Andrew!

Anyway, to get back on track, sibling rivalries are prevalent throughout Brother Bear, where such divides exist between Kenai and Denahi, Kenai and Koda, the moose brothers Rutt and Tuke, and the ram brothers. With the exception of the rams, however, love rises above animosity, and the respective siblings defend one another in times of need.

Having found affection for both his human brother, Denahi, and his bear “brother,” Koda, Kenai is burdened by Denahi’s ignorant quest to hunt the bears. As in The Lion King (1994), all beings coexist within a “circle of life,” and Kenai does not want anyone to get hurt.

Villains

The characterization of Brother Bear is rendered complex by the differing perspectives of humans and bears, and no true antagonists exist. Believing Kenai to have been killed by a bear, for example, Denahi attempts to enact revenge by hunting the “killer.” The chase is scary from Kenai’s new perspective as a bear, but Denahi’s heart is in the right place. He is just ignorant of the larger situation.

In other words, do not expect to find a villain like Ursula from The Little Mermaid (1989) in Brother Bear.

Humor

The moose brothers, Rutt and Tuke, are the film’s major comic relief characters, a sort of “poor man’s” version of Timon and Pumbaa from The Lion King (1994). I think Timon and Pumbaa are much funnier than the moose, but Rutt and Tuke are not too shabby. The brothers like to fight for no apparent reason, drive mammoths, and play “I spy.”

In addition to randomly bickering, the ram brothers enjoy absorbing their echoes; absorbing their echoes. What? Who said that?! Oh, never mind; it was only my echo.

Koda uses ice to create custom fun house mirrors. He also frequently outsmarts Kenai and has a knack for singing, though I prefer the voice of Phil Collins.

Music

Speaking of Phil Collins, the musician was a major contributor to Brother Bear, writing all seven of the film’s numbers while singing five of these songs. (1)

My favorite song in the movie is “On My Way.” This upbeat and catchy tune is complemented by dynamic meteorological visuals, including darkness, light, rain, and wind. This song provides an adrenaline rush as the players march toward the salmon run.

At the beginning of the film, Tina Turner performs the alternately fun and heartwarming “Great Spirits.” The song is similar to “Circle of Life” from The Lion King in that it voices the necessity of cooperation among earth’s beings while also considering the spirits of the deceased.

The background music is solid throughout the movie. These tunes are alternately foreboding, suspenseful, and heartwarming depending on the situation.

Relationship to Other of Disney Films

Many connections exist between Brother Bear and the films of the “Disney Renaissance” period of 1989-1999.

The emphases on ancestral spirits and the interconnection among various creatures were also central to The Lion King and Pocahontas (1995), respectively. Rafiki from the former film and Grandmother Willow from the latter movie are comparable to Tanana in that all three players can interact with the spirits of the deceased.

Phil Collins was also the main contributor to the soundtrack of Tarzan (1999). The theme of that film’s “Two Worlds,” the conflicted attachment of a human to animals, is also prevalent in Brother Bear, because Kenai comes to see both Denahi, a human, and Koda, a bear, as his brothers on equal terms.

In prefacing a story to Koda, Kenai says he will discuss a “man” and a “monster.” Clopin uses the same terms to describe Quasimodo and Frollo, respectively, at the beginning of The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996).

Too Similar?

Brother Bear was derided by some critics for excessively borrowing plot elements from other films. For example, Michael Booth of the Denver Post said, “For any spectator older than 8, one of ‘Brother Bear’s’ few diversions is naming the previous cartoon raided for key scenes and plot points. An ominous walk through a lava-heated dead zone? ‘Lion King.’ Transformation of human into animal leading to Important Life Lesson? ‘Emperor’s New Groove.’ Leading mean animal refusing to allow funny, weaker animal to join him on a long journey? ‘Ice Age.’ ‘Shrek.’ ‘Finding Nemo.’ ‘Brother Bear’ grows most tedious when it starts looking like ‘all of the above.” (2)

In a similar vein, Mark Caro of the Chicago Tribune said of Brother Bear, “This Disney animated feature wants to become a classic by becoming “The Lion King” of the prehistoric Pacific Northwest, but all it really becomes is a movie that makes you think it’s trying to be “The Lion King” of the prehistoric Pacific Northwest.” (3)

I think Booth and Caro are being too cynical here, but they raise an interesting topic for debate in any event.

In the Parks

Much of Brother Bear was created at “The Magic of Disney Animation” attraction at Florida’s Disney’s Hollywood Studios theme park. (4) Disney shuttered its Florida animation unit in 2004, so official animation no longer occurs at “The Magic of Disney Animation.” (5) Guests can create their own art at that attraction’s “Animation Academy,” however.

Photo Copyright Kelly Nobles

Photo Copyright Kelly Nobles

Kenai and Koda may appear among other Disney characters for breakfast at “Storytellers Cafe” at the Disneyland Resort’s Grand Californian Hotel. (6)

Overall

Though Brother Bear is far from Disney’s most creative effort, it is well paced and features excellent music and humor.

Notes

1) Brother Bear (2003): Soundtracks. (n.d.). Retrieved February 13, 2015, from http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0328880/soundtrack.

2) Booth, M. (2003, October 31). Oh ‘Brother,’ Disney ‘toon barely bearable Plot follows familiar path. Denver Post. Retrieved February 13, 2015, from http://0-search.proquest.com.alpha1.suffolk.lib.ny.us/docview/410769143?accountid=35174.

3) Caro, M. (2003, October 31). It’s hard to sink claws into ‘Bear’ Chicago Tribune. Retrieved February 13, 2015, from http://0-search.proquest.com.alpha1.suffolk.lib.ny.us/docview/420069272?accountid=35174.

4) Ibid.

5) Stewart, J. (2005). Disneywar. In Disney War (p. 473). New York: Simon & Schuster.

6) Thanks to @heatherw25 and @mysticflights on Twitter for their help in confirming this information.

What do you think of Brother Bear? Let me know in the comments!

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