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Brother Bear (2003)—What it Means to Love

Updated: Mar 18

Brother Bear movie poster

Well, well, Disney. We meet again. Back in the early 2000s, Disney began its experimental phase with movies that did not fit into their Disney princess niche. So began a long slew of films, some being amazingly underrated, while others were a bit of a mess. Which brings us to today’s entry: Brother Bear. I remember liking this film a lot when I was a kid. Then again, I also liked Batman and Robin as well as 2003’s Daredevil. So how does it hold up today as an adult? Let’s find out!

Kenai (voiced by Joaquin Phoenix) is the youngest among his three brothers, Denahi and Sitka. On the day of his ceremony to manhood, where he will receive the totem of his spirit animal, he is given the totem of the bear. The bear symbolizes love, which confuses Kenai. One day, Kenai tracks down a bear who was responsible for eating a basket of salmon to prove his mettle as a man. He confronts the bear with Denahi and Sitka, which leads to Sitka sacrificing himself in an attempt to kill the bear. The entire tribe mourns Sitka’s death, with Denahi blaming Kenai for his death. Out for vengeance, Kenai goes after the bear and successfully kills it. However, this upsets the spirits and Sitka transforms Kenai into a bear just as Denahi finds his clothes. Believing Kenai was also killed by the bear, Denahi swears vengeance as Kenai must learn the lesson of love.

Kenai, Denahi and Sitka from Brother Bear

My first exposure to this movie was through the same furniture store where I was introduced to Batman Beyond: Return of The Joker. I remember being extremely impressed by the visuals and action sequences, more specifically, the scene where the brothers faced off against the bear. So much so that I hunted the movie down at my local library and watched it almost religiously, without understanding the more thematic elements of the film. Even as an adult, I’m still impressed by the animation and visuals. The bear fight is not only beautifully animated, but it highlights how each brother approaches the situation. Kenai bullrushes the bear without thought, and even purposely provokes it, showing his headstrong and brash nature, Denahi fights more aggressively albeit in a more tactical manner, while Sitka is both composed and careful. Despite the film not being as memorable compared to some of Disney’s other films such as Beauty and the Beast, I was pleasantly surprised to see this level of attention given to the characters. 

But the most standout element of the film is the portrayal of familial and brotherly love. Being the youngest brother, Kenai is often picked on by Denahi while Sitka does his best to act as an older brother by not only reassuring Kenai of his self-worth, but also keeping Dehani in line. This makes Sitka’s death all the more tragic. In turn, this catalyzes Kenai’s development into becoming more like Sitka when he meets Koda and slowly bonds with him over their journey to the salmon run. Which makes it all the more heartbreaking when Kenai tells Koda what really happened to his mom. Even at the end, when Kenai is reverted back into his human form, he decides to stay a bear, wanting to protect Koda as Sitka protected him.

Ancestral northern lights from Brother Bear

What did turn me off however, was the presence of Phil Collins. Now I normally don’t care when there’s pop music in a movie, as long as the film incorporates the songs well. However, Brother Bear not only has too many Phil Collins songs in it, they place them where dialogue would have been much more suitable. One example of this is when Kenai finally tells Koda the truth about his mother’s death. What could’ve been a touching moment is spoiled when Phil Collins’ voice starts singing over the scene. Not only is the tension completely sucked dry, but by this point, your ears just start bleeding when your hear Phil Collins’ vocals. Quite frankly, not only do the songs fail to enrich the story, none of them stand out in particular. Tarzan had “You’ll be in My Heart”, The Hunchback of Notre Dame had “Hellfire”, and Treasure Planet had “I’m Still Here. What iconic song does Brother Bear have? You tell me.

Brother Bear grossed $250 million on a budget of $46 million, which led to a direct-to-DVD sequel aptly titled Brother Bear 2. Now I haven’t seen the sequel, but I heard rather mixed reviews for it, much like the first film. But despite these mixed reviews, Brother Bear was nominated for Best Animated Feature at the 76th Academy Awards, losing out to Finding Nemo. Nowadays, Brother Bear is remembered more as a Disney cult classic or forgotten gem along the lines of Treasure Planet and Atlantis: The Lost Empire. And while that isn’t a bad thing, I wish more people knew about this movie. With a heartfelt message about brotherly love, stunning visuals and likable characters, Brother Bear is one of Disney's most effective stories on what it means to love.

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