Production Company: Disney
Director: Aaron Blaise, Bob Walker
Principals: Voices of Joaquin Phoenix and Rick Moranis
By Gregg Tubbs
(UMC.org) -- “What does love have to do with being a man?” asks young Kenai near the beginning of Disney’s new animated feature Brother Bear. It’s a question that infuses the rest of this thoughtful, lively, family film about man and nature, and the nature of man.
Typical of Disney, the production values are top-shelf. The hand-drawn animation is at times gorgeous, capturing the rugged, sweeping beauty of the woodlands, cliffs and rivers of Kenai’s world. Even though computer animated films, like the recent Ice Age, seems to be the cutting edge, it’s still a joy to see what happens when old-fashioned artists roll up their sleeves and pick up pen and brush. But enjoy it while you can, this apparently is Disney’s last hand-drawn feature for the foreseeable future.
|Kenai, a young man who has been transformed into a bear, and his traveling companion, a bear cub named Koda, take a moment to enjoy the wonders of nature. © Buena Vista Pictures Distribution|
Set in the prehistoric Pacific Northwest, Brother Bear follows the fates of three Native American brothers Sitka, Denahi and the youngest Kenai. An important day has arrived for Kenai—the day his tribe will declare him a man and grant him his personal totem, an animal symbolic of a virtue he is meant to emulate. The tribe’s choice—the bear, symbolizing love—leaves him crest-fallen. This is no totem fit for a man, he complains! Then the choice of his totem takes on an ironic twist. A bear, Kenai’s own totem animal, has made off with a precious catch of fish, because of Kenai’s own negligence. Despite the protests of his older brothers, Kenai sets out, spear in hand, to punish the culprit.
The ill-conceived encounter with the bear ends tragically, leaving his brother Sitka dead and Kenai even more bent on revenge against the innocent bear. After an epic struggle, Kenai satisfies his anger by killing the bear. He also upsets the karmic apple cart. To atone for his sins, and learn a few Disney-esque “Circle of Life” lessons, Kenai is magically transformed into the thing he now hates the most—a bear. For Kenai, the shoe is now on the other paw. As a bear, he is now himself hunted by his equally vengeful brother Denahi, who mistakenly holds him responsible for the deaths of both brothers. If this all sounds a bit Shakespearean, it’s because the story was reportedly inspired by King Lear!
|Befriended by a bear cub named Koda, Kenai sets out to regain his human form after being transformed into a bear. © Buena Vista Pictures Distribution|
What follows is Kenai’s journey to a mysterious mountain—the place where the sky touches the earth—where he can appeal to the spirit of his dead brother Sitka to return him to human form. This being Disney, we can be sure that Kenai will learn some lessons along the way. You can also be sure he’ll meet some amusing animals to share his journey. A precocious, motherless bear-cub named Koda is one of them. As Koda tags along, Kenai learns what it’s like to be a big brother and have someone younger look to you for protection and wisdom, as he did his own brothers.
Like many Disney films, Brother Bear is heavy on messages. The film revisits themes found in films going all the way back to Bambi, and drawing heavily on recent classics like The Little Mermaid, The Lion King and Pocahontas. The “circle-of-life” theme that all living things are connected is scattered throughout, along with the sense that man has the responsibility to live in harmony with nature. The ideas of brotherhood, respect for life and the power of love are also strong threads throughout the film.
|A talkative bear cub named Koda entertains his animal friends (including moose brothers Rutt and Tuke) with stories of his adventures, much to the chagrin of his traveling companion, Kenai. © Buena Vista Pictures Distribution|
The film delves into newer, less traveled areas, such as revenge, and the consequences of our actions. Kenai was turned into a bear for killing a bear. It’s clear that Kenai's real offense was in why he hunted the bear—for revenge! He stalked the bear first for the embarrassment he felt after not securing the basket of fish, and then to avenge his brother’s death, for which he is partly at fault. When the tables are turned, he learns what it feels like to be hunted for reasons of hate and unable to reason with your adversary. Seen through the eyes of a bear, he realizes that vengeful Denahi, now seems like “a monster,” which is how he used to describe bears.
Brother Bear is by no means among Disney’s best, but it is certainly good enough to entertain the whole family, teach a few lessons and gives us perhaps one of our last chances to revel in old-fashioned, hand drawn animation. All this, and a tidy 80-minute length make it much more than Bear-able. It’s good family fun.
Gregg Tubbs is a freelance writer living in Columbia, Maryland.