A Study in Disney: ‘Brother Bear’ (2003)

| February 19, 2022

Brother Bear Soundtrack Music - Complete Song List | Tunefind

Brother Bear
may be the most beautifully made animated film to ever flounder under the weight of a badly written story.  Here is a movie with a glorious visual style backed by narrative choices that feel unresolved, as if the film went into final edits with the writers still undecided on what they wanted the film to be.  It starts out as a fascinating look into the Inuit tribes of post-Ice Age Alaska, with their customs and their unshakable belief that all creatures are created through spirits who live among the northern lights.  Then the movie shifts gears and becomes a goofy dramedy in which an impetuous youth is transformed into a bear and has to care for a wise-cracking cub who has lost his mother.  The shift in tone of these two ideas is enough to cause whiplash.

The fascinating cultural insights into the Inuit people in the film’s opening promise a movie that the main story doesn’t deliver.  We meet three brothers, the eldest Sitka (voiced by D.B. Sweeney), the middle-child Denahi (voiced by Jason Raize) and the youngest Kenai (voiced by Joaquin Phoenix) who join up with their tribe so that Kenai can receive his totem – a necklace in the shape of an animal whose traits he represents.  Much to his bafflement (and ours, really) he is given the totem of a bear and told that his greatest trait is love.  Kenai objects to this, stating that bears are basically killers and thieves, a point that is made fact when a bear steals the tribe’s stockpile of fish.  Pursuing the bear onto a giant glacier, Sitka sacrifices himself in order to kill the bear and save his brothers.  The bear survives and Kenai sets out to avenge his brother, chasing the animal up onto a mountain peak where he kills it.  Sitka’s spirit animal – an eagle – then transforms Kenai into a bear. 

And here’s where the movie falls apart.  Kenai, now a bear, finds himself at odds over what to do about his situation, especially since Denahi thinks that Kenai has been killed and that the now-bear Kenai is responsible.  This idea might have worked if it were the focus of the story, but it remains a sideline, a minor subplot that is occasionally revisited and then dealt with at the end.  The major plot involves the Bear Kenai trying to help a wayward bear cub named Koda (voiced by Jeremy Suarez) get to the annual salmon run in order to be reunited with his mother.  Of course, Koda’s mother (which we figure out long before anyone else does) was the bear that Kenai killed. 

The tone of the film is shifted wildly once Kenai becomes a bear.  Before this, there is a naturalistic and very realistic feel to the characters.  The brothers approach each other in the way that real brothers do and there’s a real humanity to them.  Sitka is the wise older brother, Denhai is the middle-child who is always mocking his younger brother, and Kenai is the impetuous youth.  He’s not a bad person, just immature given his age.  So, the motivations for his transformation are never really made clear.  Apparently, it is supposed to teach him a lesson about how the other half lives – the bear half – but the notion of this lesson is about as stupid as it sounds.  Bears are territorial creatures who hunt and kill in order to survive, but this movie pushes its main character into a position of having to see bears as having feelings and family and insights and . . . live at peace with human beings?  Bears are savage creatures who have no cognitive ability to ally themselves with human beings.  Okay, sure, this is a fantasy, but the message is pushed into an unconvincing hard-left whack-a-doodle animal equality message that anyone with logical sense is going to reject.

The movie badly needed some restraint.  Even if we are to buy the story of Kenai needing to learn a lesson by being transformed into a bear, the movie never gives the viewer time to pull their own emotions toward the story.  Instead, your own emotional investment is pulled away from you and beaten into your senses with wall to wall music. 

Example: There is a badly mishandled scene late in the film when Kenai has to tell Koda that he was responsible for his mother’s death.  This should be the tipping point of the entire movie, the moment when the full drama of Kenai’s story comes to a head.  But the conversation is muted so we can hear a noisy Phil Collins song played over the dialogue.  This robs us of the power of the moment.  We don’t get to hear what Kenai tells Koda, we only get the cub’s reaction as the music beats the power of the moment away.  This shows a lack of confidence in the audience’s ability to reason and think this story out.  The music should have been understated, playing as a restrained undercurrent of emotion.  OR, the scene could have the added power of having no music at all.  Why not leave us with a blank slate?  Why not leave us with some emotional challenge to work out? 

Imagine the scene with no music.  Koda and Kenai sit on the edge of the rock and Kenai breaks the news.  Koda doesn’t look at him but only stares out into the wilderness – a wilderness that he will now have to face alone.  Kenai breaks the silence by asking “What are you feeling?”  After a second, Koda – suddenly boosted into adolescence – says “I feel nothing.”  Imagine the power of that moment.  No music.  No Phil Collins.  No emotional instruction.  Just feelings. 

This could have been a great moment, and that is largely what Brother Bear is, a lot of could-have-been moments.  There’s no confidence in this material.  Outside of the film’s opening act there’s nothing here that indicates that the screenwriters have a story to tell.  The story is mangled into a weird message of communing with animals’ narrative that doesn’t make sense.  As stated before, it seems tilted at the idea of understanding animals on a human level without ever considering how dangerous they are.  In the end, apparently, the human tribe has made peace with the bears, and Kenai has chosen to remain a bear, abandoning his human nature.  Why?  What is the point?  If he’s going to raise Koda, there’s no point.  Koda has a pack of bears to commune with, he doesn’t need Kenai.  The ending of this movie is so muddled that you’re not even sure what’s going to happen next.  This is a movie that leaves thoughtful viewers really confused as to how to feel about it when it’s over.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.