Beware: Spoilers may follow
Disney had various movies and genres following the renaissance era. Some were hits that have gone down as classics among the greats while others were better forgotten. This is one of those movies that is somewhere in between. Although it has strength and heart in the right places there are elements that drag it down.
The story involves three brothers: Kenai, Denahi, and Sitka (youngest to oldest respectively). As part of their tribe’s culture, each member receives a totem of an animal symbolizing what they must follow to achieve adulthood. Denahi obtained the wolf of wisdom and Sitka attained the eagle of guidance. On his big day Kenai receives the bear of love, which doesn’t sit well with him thinking bears are nothing more than thieves. When a bear steals some salmon Kenai and his brothers pursue it and a fight with the bear results in Sitka’s death. In a fit of rage, Kenai avenges his brother by killing the bear. As punishment he is transformed into a bear by his brother’s spirit. As a bear he comes across a cub who got separated from his mother named Koda who offers to help Kenai to the mountains so he can change back. Meanwhile Denahi who saw the transformation, thinks Kenai has died and sets out to avenge his brother.
The first third of the story brilliantly establishes the bonds between these three brothers. Through all the playful teasing they still feel like a unique unit in how each brother builds on the strengths and covers their shortcomings. Because of this, even though it happens pretty early on in the film, the impact of Sitka’s death and the affect it has on his younger brothers can really be felt in just how incomplete they are without him. But the main heart of the story is Kenai’s transformation into a bear. And this is where the movie can have its shortcoming. Though the movie treats it as such, it is not a big mystery of what happened to Koda’s mother. Most of the second third is just Kenai traveling with Koda. This gives way to Denahi’s pursuit of them in the process, which gives Kenai some heavy insight about how bears view humans as the monsters just as Kenai saw them as such which would help give way to his decision at the end. But outside of that the world of the animals is mostly played for laughs and it overshadows the journey Kenai is on.
The animation is really well done. The way they show the Great Spirits (particularly in Kenai’s transformation) is beautiful through the lighting, colors, and the angles, which helps establish their powerful role in the story of Kenai’s transformation and the mysterious way in how they worked in transforming Kenai (as the shaman of the tribe Tanana informs him this had never happened before).
In regards to character animations one of the ones that stands out is Denahi, which ties into his role in the movie. At first his design is normal which signifies his desire to kill the bear out of passion for his younger brother. But as the movie goes on and Kenai and Koda repeatedly escape his grasp he grows a mustache and a goatee and develops circles under his eyes, which would signify his slow descent into madness at the bear. In a clever bit of writing Denahi is not the villain in this story. His reasons though misguided are understandable from his point of view given the bonds we saw between them prior.
Most of the movie shows Kenai as a bear and they animate his expressions really well in showing his fear and understanding of what it means to be a bear in terms of humor and heart.
The backgrounds and landscapes are charming to look at and give way to a variety of memorable and creative environments for the characters to get into some intense scenarios. Examples of this include the mountains, the fight on the glacier, and the lava field.
When it comes to the characters once again the movie has its shortcoming. The animal characters aren’t the best. Rutt and Tuke are two comic relief moose whose roles are minor and only seem to have the joke of being Canadian. They don’t tie into the main plot at all. Even though Koda is just a kid and he means well sometimes but he can get really annoying in just how much he talks. But to his credit he gives way to Kenai’s development in understanding his totem.
Kenai is hands down the memorable part of this movie. His journey to understand his totem is given a great deal of believability through the voice actor Joaquin Phoenix who makes a lot of the emotional moments of the movie hit home. His journey doesn’t just involve him getting past his bear prejudice but also understanding how powerful love can be and unite two different worlds.
In regards to the songs Phil Collins once again sings them. The opening song Great Spirits is a beautiful song that helps establish the premise and the kind of people these characters are. Although No Way Out is a good song its placement in the movie is when Kenai confesses to Koda about the truth is completely out of place as Kenai tells the story and it’s made even worse when you realize what they cut out for it.
Brother Bear has some amazing animation and likable human characters. But once it enters the human world, the movie definitely has its shortcomings. Though it has a good journey most of it dragged down through its attempts to be funny with the other animal characters. None of it is particularly harmful but the second third is where the majority of the stuff built up by the first third is almost thrown out. Overall, it’s not something I’d look back on often but am glad I watched.