In my last article, I really ripped into Disney and its “masterpiece” movie The Lion King, and I feel kind of bad (not really, but I need a good lead-in to this article). This time, I’d like to talk about a Disney movie that I feel should deserve more attention. This film came about a decade later, after the “Disney Renaissance” had passed, and when the company was sort of moving away from musical films for a time. This film is Brother Bear which is not a sweeping epic, but a smaller scale film about brotherhood, understanding, and love. I do not think that Brother Bear is one of the best Disney films, nor is it my one of my favorites, but unlike The Lion King, which I consider overrated, I believe that Brother Bear is a highly underrated film.
Brother Bear is about an Inuit boy in post-ice age North America, named Kenai, and as the tagline says, it is about his journey to become a man “by becoming a bear”. The story starts with Kenai and his two older brothers, Denahi and Sitka, attending a manhood ceremony where Kenai receives his totem, which is “the bear of love”. Unhappy with his totem, and after finding that a bear had stolen a basket of fish, he storms off in search of it. He ends up provoking the bear which leads to the death of his oldest brother Sitka. He then decides to go after the bear and kills it in revenge. Angered by this needless death, the spirits, including that of Sitka, turns him into a bear so that he can “see through another’s eyes” and gain new perspective. In his journey to find a way to change himself back, he meets a young bear-cub named Koda, and begins to learn the true meaning of brotherhood, and the meaning of his totem.
Admittedly the moral is, on the surface, very overdone and in your face; it’s a rehashing of the themes of “love is powerful” and “walk 100 miles in someone else’s shoes (paws?)”. Furthermore the animation, though well done, isn’t anything more or less amazing than what Disney puts out. On top of that, I even find the humor to fall pretty flat. The scenes with the two comic relief moose Rutt and Tuke (voiced by Canadian actors Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas) are kind of annoying. They feel out of place and more like padding to add to the feature length movie time. The music is okay, and a few songs are done by Phil Collins, so if anything that adds to the feeling that this is definitely a Disney film. In execution of the film, Brother Bear is not very spectacular. But looking past the Disnified trope-y surface, it does some pretty unique things for a Disney movie.
The main thing that sets Brother Bear apart from Disney’s list of classic films is that there is no antagonist. This may not seem as crazy at first, but if you seriously think about the mainstays of Disney movies, you always have to have a pure evil, dastardly Disney villain; preferably with a catchy villain song. Brother Bear has no such thing, and as far as I’m aware, is the only Disney movie to do this. Instead the conflict is mainly caused by the main character himself, and the story is about him making up for what he did wrong. Any other existing conflict, such as his brother Denahi chasing Kenai and Koda, is due to misunderstandings, again, mainly caused by Kenai himself. I think the lack of a villain and having the conflict primarily revolve around internal struggles is well done and should be applauded. I am surprised more people don’t talk about the use of this plot device in Brother Bear. Not only that, but to have the main protagonist also be his own antagonist is rather remarkable. This especially hits home at the point in the film when Kenai truly realizes what he has done wrong and feels immense guilt over it. Going back to The Lion King, this is a huge difference from the internal conflict that Simba feels from him believing that he was the cause of his father’s death (again, not sure if that counts as a spoiler). Maybe it’s because, we as the audience, know that it was Scar’s doing? But when Kenai understands what he did, the film makes it so the audience can actually feel his guilt. I find that a pretty impressive feat. Another thing that I like about Brother Bear is that it decides to use the idea of love, as something outside just romantic feelings, which is another Disney staple. The love portrayed in this film is linked with brotherhood and understanding, which is a lot harder to pull off than portraying a man and a woman falling in love in the span of a song.
Brother Bear is by no means one of the Disney film greats, but for going outside of the Disney-box, I feel this movie should gain more viewership and more appreciation.