It’s fitting I’m starting this review now. I’m sitting in a Panera in Wooster, Ohio, in town for my college’s homecoming. Why’s that fitting? Well, I feel like Disney hit a giant void during my college years (2003-2007). Of the four movies that came out when I was in college, I only ended up ever seeing 2 of them. The other two I’d rather not talk about. I think a lot of people would rather not talk about them.
but it worked. I was too busy to even care about going to see movies, and stuck on a campus without a car meant that I couldn’t see them even if I wanted to. This movie, however, I got as soon as it came to DVD without even seeing it. I remember seeing the trailer for it and crying because of the message Disney was going to convey with this one.
A lot of people hate this movie. They pan it, saying it’s a retread, or that they’ve heard the story a million times, or that there’s nothing really special about it. I’ve determined that those people aren’t worth arguing with when it comes to this movie. I have my opinion, and they have theirs. I understand what they’re saying, but I don’t believe it and I don’t agree with them one bit.
What do I believe? This movie is a freaking underrated GEM in the Disney Canon. I LOVE this movie. I don’t care what people think or people say. I’m happy to admit it. I will defend this movie until the day I die. It is certainly not just a retreat. In fact, I hear people say that, and I legitimately wonder if they were watching the same movie I was.
I will explain the plot of this one, simply because I want to prove that it’s not just a retread:
We open in beautiful ice age Alaska or British Columbia or somewhere up there. We meet three Native inuit brothers: Sitka, Denahi, and Kenai. It’s the day of Kenai’s manhood ceremony, and he’s excited to get his totem from the shawoman of their village: It’s a small rock carved in the shape of an animal which is said to be the thing that will help guide him through his life. Wheras some people get an animal that signifies bravery, wisdom or guidance, Kenai receives the Bear of Love.
Upset at the result and believing that bears are beasts incapable of love, he and his brothers leave the ceremony to find that a bear has gotten into the fish they spent all day catching. Kenai goes after it. This leads to a stand off between the three brothers and the bear, and Sitka sacrifices himself, collapsing a glacier to keep the bear away from his brothers. Sitka dies and the bear runs off.
Wanting vengence, Kenai tracks the bear to the top of a mountain, where he fights and kills the bear. This is when the spirits come down in the form of the aurora borealis and transform Kenai into a bear. His brother Denahi, who had tracked Kenai to talk some sense into him, sees a bear walking away and torn clothes and assumes the bear destroyed his brother: now he’s out for vengeance.
Kenai awakens to the shawoman of his village telling him that this is a test: the spirits have something big planned for him, and if he wants to be human again he has to take it up with the spirit of Sitka at the mountain where the lights touch the earth. She mysteriously vanishes, leaving Kenai on his own with no idea where that mountain is.
It’s not long before he meets a pair of mooses, Rut and Tuke, who don’t believe he was a human. Kenai wanders off right into a bear trap, where a cub named Koda comes out, makes fun of him for not seeing the trap, and helps him out with the promise that Kenai will take him to the salmon run (he and his mom were separated and he knows she’ll meet him there). Kenai does it simply because the mountain where the lights touch the earth is right next to it.
Koda gets Kenai out of the trap and soon Denahi shows up. Kenai is excited to see his brother, but of course Denahi doesn’t know Kenai is a bear and attempts to kill him. Koda and Kenai run to get rid of him, and Kenai deals with the fact that he was just attacked by his brother for seemingly no good reason.
The middle part of the movie is Kenai and Koda traveling to the salmon grounds, trying to lose Denahi and Kenai getting some lessons about perspective. He explains to Koda as they near the salmon grounds about how bears are killers, to which Koda doesn’t understand: Denahi attacked them. They get to the salmon grounds, which is surrounded by bears, and Kenai expects to be mauled, but instead learns that bears really aren’t the killers he thought they were.
The real kicker comes when Koda finally tells the story of when he and his mom were separated. *Spoilers ahead* Turns out the bear that Kenai killed was Koda’s mother. He runs off, Koda finds him, and Kenai has to come clean and tell Koda what happened. Koda (obviously) is upset and runs off. Thinking there’s nothing he can do, Kenai heads up the mountain, begging for Sitka and the spirits to change him back. Denahi shows up, still hell bent on revenge, and Koda does as well after realizing that he cares about Kenai. There’s a fight between the three, and as Denahi goes after Koda, Kenai intercepts them, willing to give his own life for the cubs. It is only then when the lights appear on the mountain and Kenai is changed back into a human.
Things are seemingly happy until Kenai explains to Sitka’s spirit that Koda needs him. He has them change him back into a bear.
ok – now you name me another Disney movie that teaches about perspective and walking in someone else’s shoes through transformation. What’s that, you can’t? That’s what I freaking thought. See? not a retread. Disney has does movies on seeing your enemies perspective (Pocahontas comes to mind) or transformations (Beauty and the Beast technically, Mulan you could argue too). But never have the two come together before.
To me, this movie felt like old school Disney Renaissance. It was hand drawn, had heart, had characters not insanely deep but easy to follow, sidekicks, talking animals, etc. It was a Disney movie that felt like it could have been based on a fairy tale. It felt like a kid movie (as opposed to marketed at teenagers…) that adults could still enjoy. I really really will never understand those critics.
This movie does have things wrong with it, but those things aren’t what the critics pointed out as this movies’s worst problems. I will get to those at the end, but right now, I want to defend my movie:
#1: This movie has a culture, belief systems, and a species spanning religion
This is what I love the most about this movie. The same thing that made The Lion King such a hit (in my opinion) is what makes me love this one. We have a group of ice age inuits who survive by believing very much in the power of nature, the connections they have with it, and the magic of the spirits. In this movie, the spirits take their shape as the beautiful Aurora Borealis, or as Koda calls it, “The night rainbow.”
This could have been extremely corny. Spirits live in the lights in the sky. They’re responsible for the changes in the world, and when you die, the lights come down and suck you up. But it works in this movie because it takes everything seriously. I LOVE when movies take themselves seriously because it makes the audience take it seriously.
Another thing I love about the way they do this is that it’s one thing for a group of people to believe in something. It’s another for it to actually exist. In this movie, these beliefs are grounded. Magic and the unexplained actually exists in this movie, and we get to see its proof. Now you could argue that it takes a bit of the reality out of the movie. You don’t need proof in something to believe in it. That’s true. Every single religion is based on that idea. But at the same time, not every single person in Kenai’s tribe gets to witness these things. It’s just Tenana, the shawoman (which makes sense) and Kenai and Denahi at the end. They get to witness it because it’s part of their test. It’s “divine intervention” if you will. All the other people in the tribe have to take the words of those who have witnessed it that it’s true.
It’s also cool that this “religion” spans species. Koda knows exactly what the night rainbow is, that his grandparents are up there, and that they’re responsible for the changes in the world. It’s a small scene with him and Kenai, but it’s a powerful one, because Kenai’s in shock that he knows about the great spirits. it’s just another aspect of the movie that subtly points out that we’re all the same.
I also want to mention how much I love that even though Kenai’s brother dies, his “spirit” stays within the movie. His Totem was an eagle, and not only do you see Sitka portrayed as the spirit of an eagle (see above), but you also see an actual Bald Eagle floating around in the movie, guiding the two brothers to interact.
#2: This movie has a main character who is relatable and actually changes.
Kenai (voiced by Joaquin Phoenix) is not the most interesting major character. I’ll admit that. But he’s driven. He’s also a very good representation of kids his age (I’m going to guess late teens? I honestly have no idea, but he’s young, no older than mid-twenties…): He doesn’t really believe in anything his elders do. He’s embarrassed when love is his totem, because it’s not “manly” enough. He lives in the moment, and believes everything that he believes is right. He’s stubborn to the point that it’s dangerous.
This movie is a coming of age tale, but it’s one that’s unique for Disney because it tells the story of a man who becomes a man by learning how to love. I want more stories like this for little boys. Stories that show the repercussions of blind hatred and violence. Stories that teach that not all people that are different than you are evil. Stories that teach respect and value to this world we’ve been given. Stories that show that to be a man you don’t have to be violent or “manly.” That in fact it takes a true man to love another with all your heart.
Kenai learns this throughout the entire movie, but it’s never forced. He changes gradually through meeting characters and having experiences. It’s such a natural thing that by the end of the movie he’s almost unrecognizable. It’s extremely well done.
#3: This movie is unique in that we can relate with the villain – even if he’s not the best
There are actually a few villains in the movie, and it’s all about perspective. First, we have the giant bear that steals the fish in the beginning of the movie and Kenai eventually kills. To the humans, this is everything a giant monster and villain should be.
When Kenai gets turned into a bear, it’s suddenly his brother, Denahi, that’s after him. He can’t understand and even mentions “It’s not like him.” Koda just says “that’s what they do!” To Koda, Denahi is everything a giant monster and villain should be.
Denahi is not Disney’s best villain by far. But I would argue he’s the most relatable. For once, we have a straight picture and storyline of how the villain became the villain. He was pushed to do the unthinkable out of fear, anger, and vengeance. He’s not just out to ruin someone’s life because. In fact, he doesn’t even realize he’s ruining someone’s life, lest of all his brother’s. In fact, Denahi didn’t even want Kenai to go after the bear in the first place. He didn’t blame the bear for Sitka’s death. Kenai did. He understood that some things just happen. It’s only after seeing the clothes of Kenai that something inside him snaps. The same anger that raged within Kenai now filled him, turning him into the very “monster” he said didn’t exist.
This movie is as much about Denahi learning a lesson as it is Kenai. Denahi’s totem is wisdom. You could argue he becomes wise because of this ordeal. He learns that love is very powerful, and that perspective is everything.
#4: This movie has some unbelievably memorable scenes in it.
They could be entire scenes, or even just a few single lines. This movie has a bunch that have stuck with me. The best part is, they’re not “words of Wisdom” scenes that feel like they were just stuck in to show off their message. They were stuck in there to up the message, but it’s not forced. It’s real.
First we have the discussion that Koda and Kenai have about the “night rainbow.” This one is just a line, but I love it. Kenai tells Koda that he has a brother up there, and that he wouldn’t be there if it weren’t for him. Koda asks his brother’s name, then turns to the sky and goes “Thanks Sitka. Without you, I would have never met Kenai!”
The second scene is when Kenai and Koda come upon a cave with drawings done by cave men, depicting mammoths, deer, etc. Kenai stops when he sees a scene of a ferocious bear being attacked by a hunter with a spear. He grows a confused, concerned face. Then Koda pops out from behind him and goes “Those monsters are really scary. Especially with those sticks.”
The last one is the big “Bam!” in the story (*spoilers*) but it’s the one that really get me, and should. I think i like this one because it’s almost that moment that Kenai realizes something about himself. It’s the “No Way Out” scene. Koda has just told everyone the story about his mother on the glacier, and Kenai had to get out after realizing it was Koda’s mother he killed. Koda joins him in the middle of nowhere. Kenai has to break the news to Koda about his mother, but doesn’t know how to do it. So he starts by telling Koda he has a story to tell him.
“What kind of story?” Asks Koda.
“Well… It’s kind of about a man, and kind of about a bear. But mostly, it’s about a monster…”
It’s then we get the song starting, and probably the best done scene in the movie if not any Disney movie ever. How do you explain you just killed someone’s mother? It’s a dark thing for Disney, and they do it incredibly well. Best use of a song, EVER. It’s a scene that will stick with you and make you tear up. I love it.
#5: This movie stresses the idea of family, relationships, and love.
I mentioned a few reviews ago how the 00s was a time in Disney’s Canon that they seemed to focus more on original ideas and the idea of family. You don’t really notice it a lot in these movies because most of the time they’re focusing on the idea of “what makes a family?” In the 00s, you have a lot of extended family, or friends as family. This movie is no different.
It’s called “brother bear” for a reason. That’s because at the heart of this movie is the relationship between Kenai and Koda. It’s also about the relationship Kenai has with Denahi and Sitka.
This movie teaches us all that love is important, and that it can happen between anyone. It teaches us that all love isn’t romantic: love between siblings or two unrelated individuals can sometimes be as strong if not stronger and move everlasting. It teaches us that love is putting someone else first, even if it means risking your own life. Love means putting aside your differences and understanding what the person (or in this case, bear) is going through and how they see the world.
This movie teaches us that relationships are not always going to be perfect: brothers fight, bicker, quarrel, and may even try to kill each other. But in the end, they’re still your family, and you would do anything for them.
#6: This movie’s message about perspective is one of my favorites.
Remember my review for the Fox and the Hound? I heralded this movie for the way it dealt with such a grown up idea in such an amazing way. This movie, in a lot of ways, does the same thing.
We have this idea that villains and monsters are those that don’t see eye to eye with us. They’re things, people, cultures, and creatures that we don’t fully understand, so we label them as “evil.” What’s amazing is that even in our own lives, the social norms of those we live around almost determine what we view as “evil.” Someone can be afraid of spiders because their parents are. A whole culture can hate another because that’s what everyone else is doing. It’s only when one person changes their minds that the whole culture can begin to move forward.
That’s what the message of this movie really is. We have two cultures: Bears and Humans. Both view each other as “evil” or “monsters” or “scary.” Why? because they don’t understand each other and that’s just the way that time has progressed. There’s always a hindrance that stops the understanding. In this case, it’s the actuality of not speaking the same language. (wouldn’t it be nice if things were that easy in real life?) Oh and look, once someone of one culture has to be reliant on an individual from the other culture, they begin to see eye to eye and realize that they have more in common than they thought.
Alright. Now here’s some problems that even I have with the movie:
#1: They could have done more with the culture.
There, I said it. I enjoy the culture part of this movie, but there could have been more. We know the other animals believe in the same thing, but we only get Koda explaining that. Why not the Mooses? or the other bears? Why couldn’t this carry throughout the movie about lessons the spirits teach us, as opposed to just that the spirits change things? That could have been a cool thing to add in. That Kenai isn’t the first one they’ve taught a lesson to.
#2: The characters aren’t that great
I will agree with this one. The characters ARE the weak point in this movie. I’ve already talked about some of them and will talk about others below, but this is a legit criticism. They’re nothing that special and this is not where the movie’s strengths are.
#3: Koda, Rut, and Tuke can get a bit annoying
I’m actually putting this one in here because I have heard it from other people. I don’t experience this myself, but I can see where everyone is coming from. So even though I’m putting this in my “problems” list, it’s not really for me. In fact this will probably turn into me justifying them.
A lot of people really dislike Koda. He’s an annoying kid that talks to much about nothing. He’s a smart alec. Then there’s Rut and Tuk. They’re a bit pointless in some ways, and you could argue they’re just there for comedy.
I do agree with both of these points, and they are both incredibly right. We all know I hate most Disney little kids. Mowgli annoys me, and even Simba bugs me with his smug attitude. But for some reason, Koda doesn’t. wanna know why? He’s realistic. Not that the other two aren’t, but Koda seems more like a kid I would actually know. In fact, I do know kids like him. kids that won’t shut up and like to tell pointless stories but really are sweet at heart and don’t realize how annoying they are. They just like to share things with you.
Rut and Tuke to me are hit or miss, so I am more likely to agree that they are annoying than with Koda. They’re voiced by the Canadian comedy duo of Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas, and I kinda like the (stereotypical?) “eh”‘s and the Candian accents they give their characters. They do play into the story a bit, and they almost represent an intact brother duo to help Koda later in the movie. They serve their purpose, and some of their lines are funny. (Why don’t we get a back seat or something? It looks like you hunted me!)
#3: The songs don’t fit in to the storyline, and most aren’t needed.
I actually love these songs, but they’re fluff, for the most part. They don’t fit in to the movie, they don’t really convey emotions or move the story along in the way that, say, Beauty and the Beast’s songs do. That’s a shame, because it’s the ever talented Phil Collins back again! I think the problem with him doing this movie was that he tried to do it like Tarzan. But Tarzan had a lot of time passing, and needed songs in the background to be good for montages. Brother Bear doesn’t need that. In fact, the one song it needed as a montage song (On my way) is probably my least favorite song. It’s about nothing!
Now to be fair, some of the songs are done very well, and I do like the fact that Phil doesn’t sing all the songs like he did in Tarzan. “Great Spirits” is a good song that fits in well to the beginning of the movie, and is sung by Tina Turner. The song “Transformation” is unique because it’s in another language, and it fits in, although I don’t know if it was entirely needed. Same with the song “Welcome,” although that one does convey a sense of Kenai’s emotion. Just a little bit…
Then there’s “No Way Out,” which upon initial viewing of this movie was my least favorite song. Now it’s my favorite, because it’s the only one that should actually be in the movie. It conveys emotion, it’s worked into the scene incredibly well (see my #4 above for more on that) and it’s perfect.
And I’m sad Denahi didn’t get a song. Not really, cause that would have NOT fit in. Just because of who voiced him… (Jason Raize (RIP): The original Simba on Broadway! He had an AMAZING voice. If you don’t believe me, Google “Endless night.” UNBELIEVABLE!)
As you can see, I have a lot more “likes” about this movie than “dislikes,” and I even cheated with my dislikes. The truth of the matter is, I love this movie. It’s hard for me to find things wrong with it. That being said, I really do understand why a lot of people don’t like it. I can see it being that type of movie. As for a retread? Yes, it has things similar to other Disney movies. I compared it to a lot of them in my review: Tarzan, Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, The Fox and the Hound. But it’s got components of these movie. It isn’t these movies. It’s its own thing. And I hope, if anything, I’ve shown you all that.
Give it a watch if you’ve never seen it. If you have a son, show it to him. We need more movies like this.
I’m going to give Brother Bear (2003) a 3.7. I know that’s higher than a lot of people would put it, but I don’t care. It has too many good things going for it to put it lower.
Up Next: Brother Bear 2 (2006)