Disney produces a new animated feature just about every year. Many of these become cinema classics that withstand the test of time. Beauty and the Beast, for example, is still a well known classic that you can still find merchandise for decades after its initial 1991 release. Brother Bear (2003) was released only about ten years ago, and it’s been about ten years since I heard anyone talk about it.
Set in a post-ice age North America, three Inuit brothers return from a hunting trip. The youngest, Kenai (Joaquin Phoenix), is to receive his sacred totem which will make him a man in the eyes of his tribe. In the ceremony Kenai receives the bear of love to guide him through his life. Kenai hates bears and considers the attribute of love to be pretty far down the totem pole, so to speak. Kenai finds his fishing catch stolen by a bear after the ceremony and decides to hunt down the beast. While attempting to save his brother from the bear, the oldest brother, Sitka (D.B. Swenney), is killed. With a renewed sense of vengeance, Kenai later kills the bear. Following this, Sitka appear as an eagle spirit and transforms Kenai into a bear. The middle brother, Danahi (Jason Raize), believes that bear-Kenai is responsible for the death of both his brothers and begins hunting down Kenai out of a strong sense of hate. As he tries to seek the spirits who can restore him to his human form, Kenai tries to stay ahead of Danahi while learning how to be a bear from a young bear cub named Kota (Jeremy Suarez).
Possibly the best thing I can say about Brother Bear is the animation and art direction is impressive. The art direction was heavily influenced by ancient cave paintings. The film’s aspect ratio was used as a storytelling device. It begins in a standard widescreen aspect ratio of 1.75:1, which is common in U.S. movies and on HDTVs these days. After Kenai turns into a bear, the aspect ratio changes to an anamorphic aspect ratio of 2.35:1, accompanied by a much brighter and fanciful color pallet with slightly more caricatured art direction. This is done to illustrate how Kenai’s perception of the world changes and broadens.
During the character introductions early in the film, the script seemed forced; everyone goes out of their way to address other characters by name so that we know exactly what everyone’s name is. We’re also repeatedly told about Kenai’s desire to receive his spirit totem and become a man. The writing wasn’t very good for the first ten minutes of the movie because it didn’t feel very natural. After the characters were established, the script flowed much smoother.
Of course where would an animated Disney movie be without its token comic relief characters? In Brother Bear there is a pair of moose named Rutt and Tuke that periodically tag along with Kenai and Kota as they travel. They are played by Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas and are essentially the same characters they played in Strange Brew, except they look like moose. They really add a humorous tone to the movie.
Remembering that Brother Bear came out in the years following the 9/11 attacks sheds some light on its cultural impact. After September 11, 2001 the United State was still reeling from the terrorist attack which was fueled by hatred and anger. Many people were resentful, angry, hurt, and some were even vengeful. I think we needed a film like Brother Bear to remind us of the value of forgiveness and love. The themes in Brother Bear included seeing things from another’s perspective, admitting fault, and forgiving hurtful, irreversible offenses. These are key components to conflict resolution that are important in the healing process. Disney isn’t responsible for the US recovering from the attack, but I think they may have influenced some level of spiritual healing that I believe many people were still needing.
I think that what made Brother Bear not withstand the test of time is that is wasn’t very bold. The Disney films that have achieved the status of “classic” did things in terms of character, setting, and animation that their predecessors did not. Brother Bear was good, but seemed to strive to be sweet and cute rather than bold and exciting. And it really did achieve that, which is why it’s been overshadowed by bolder and more exciting classics like The Lion King or Finding Nemo. Brother Bear is worth seeing at least once. Kids will enjoy it and adults will relate to the spiritual healing in the story. It’s also got plenty of material to help you teach younger viewers about forgiveness, love, and healing.
Have you ever seen a movie that helped you “heal” in some way? What movie was it? Comment below and tell me about it!