So happy to welcome back Michelle as she paints a powerful argument about her ‘underrated’ Disney film choice. She’s totally convinced me to watch this movie for the rest of my life.
“I think ultimately the message of Brother Bear is when we’re faced with choices in life, if we approach them from a place of love and compassion rather than fear and hate, you’ll most likely make the right decision.” -Joaquin Phoenix
Remember when the animation tour at Hollywood Studios was still making movies? Well, that’s where I first heard of Brother Bear, as I enjoyied my freshman year spring break at Disney World. Zeroing in on a picture of Joaquin Phoenix (who I have had a crush on since I was 12 through psychotic, hoax breakdowns and all), the resident animator began to tell us the story of the company’s 44th animated feature and I was instantly intrigued.
Almost a year later, Brother Bear was released in theaters and the first thing I noticed was how closely it resembled one of my favorite films, Pocahontas. I have much respect for that headstrong, Shamanistic Princess and the message her movie was trying to convey about the delicate balance between human, animal and the planet Earth that is home to both. In fact, one criticism I hear regarding Brother Bear a lot is the message. “Haven’t we heard it all before? Be good to the environment, be good to the animals, blah blah blah.” My answer to that is this: when someone wiser than you (parent or teacher, etc.) tries to teach you something, do they only say it once? Of course not. So why should Disney movies be any different? Disney first taught me this lesson when I was 10 and reinforced it when I was 19. Looking at a situation from multiple points of view, having tolerance for others and forgiving those who have wronged you are things that even as an adult, I’m still learning.
A sucker for nostalgia, I love hand-drawn movies and the animation for Brother Bear is no exception. The backgrounds for this film are breathtaking. From the large sequoia trees to the mountains and glaciers, the realistic style was beautiful to look at. The background stylist, Xiangyuan Jie, is a Chinese artist who was trained by Russian painters and his representation of the nature, that almost acts as another character in this movie, is flawless.
Phil Collins was asked to come back to work on the music as he had in Tarzan with one main difference — not only was he writing the songs for Brother Bear, but he would be writing the score as well (along with Mark Mancina who did the score for Tarzan). I loved how Phil narrated Tarzan, especially since I believe the soundtrack was the movie’s only redeeming quality, but I liked the chances he took with Brother Bear. Instead of singing all the songs himself, he brought on Tina Turner (and if you have a problem with that woman’s voice, there is no hope for you) and The Blind Boys of Alabama to represent different portions of the film. My favorite by far however was the Bulgarian Women’s Choir singing his song, “Transformation” translated Eskimo in language. A university professor from Alaska actually translated the song line by line. How is that for authentic?
Aside from the gorgeous animation and the eclectic music, I absolutely love the emotional reaction I have every time I watch this movie. Kenai, Sitka, and Denahi are three brothers who despite spending most of the beginning of the movie beating the crap out of each other, really care for one another. I like how spiritual this film is. They come from a tribe where once someone comes of age, they are granted a totem or animal whose strength represents how they must live their life. The Eskimo people have a great respect for the animals and nature around them. When you die, you join these spirits above and guide your people to live by those same values.
Kenai is your typical impatient teenager with something to prove. He wants to get his handprint on the wall where every man in his tribe has made their mark before him. After losing his oldest brother to a bear and then subsequently killing that bear, (this is what happens when Pocahontas isn’t there to save the bear) the spirits believe that Kenai needs to learn a lesson and to do that, he must transform… literally. When he becomes a bear, he meets Koda who is just too adorable and made me wish I had a bear cub of my own. (Oh, if only!) And because Koda knows “where the lights touch the Earth”, Kenai has to rely on him to lead him there because it’s his only chance of changing back to a human.
You know what I like best about Kenai? I like that for about half the movie, I didn’t really like him at all. He was whiny and immature. He doesn’t seem to have the same respect for the wildlife around him like others do and he holds onto that fierce prejudice against bears for most of the movie. The scene when he and Koda find the ancient wall drawings is pretty amazing because for the first time, you begin to see that Kenai is finally realizing that the world is so much bigger than just him. Looking at the different animals on the walls, it’s like he’s seeing how connected everything is, but nothing hits him harder than that picture of the bear and the man. Notice how ferociously the bear is drawn, yet Koda refers to the monsters as the one holding the stick.
Much like in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, you are faced with the question – what makes a monster and what makes a man? This question echoes in the music and you can almost see the wheels in Kenai’s head begin to turn. Is it outward appearances? Or someone’s soul that makes them a villain? This idea becomes central to the story when Kenai realizes the true consequences of his actions and has to explain to Koda what really happened to his mother.
Kenai: You know that story you told me last night?
Kenai: Well I have a story to tell you.
Koda: Really? What’s it about?
Kenai: Well its kinda about a man and kinda about a bear. But mostly, it’s about a monster…
When “No Way Out” begins to play and you hear Phil Collins singing about lost hope, I cry every single time. Kenai’s paw in the snow easily morphs into a human hand and it’s quite the turning point for him. SPOILER In the end, guided by the eagle or rather, Sitka’s spirit, Kenai and Denahi face the responsibilities of their actions. Kenai, finally understanding his totem of love, lets that guide him as he makes the the decision to remain a bear in order to care of Koda. Brotherhood, be it in man or animal form, doesn’t matter because the two are intertwined. SPOILER
Even though the content matter may fall on the heavy philosophical side, it doesn’t mean the movie lacks comic relief. On the contrary, Rutt and Tuke, the two Canadian moose brothers are seriously hilarious. Voiced by Dave Thomas and Rick Moranis, they’re based on a sketch the two men did for a Canadian version of Saturday Night Live where they played brothers, Bob and Doug McKenzie. If you are not familiar with their sketch, “Great White North” click here. Now. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GsgVspgy184 Along with the moose, the bears themselves offer many funny moments. Who didn’t laugh when that random Russian bear started screaming on screen? I certainly cry with laughter every time. (Does anyone know what he actually said? Please comment if you do!)
I know this movie may not be the most popular among those in the animation canon, but I really think it has the story elements and emotional pull to at least put it up there. Disney films are always a metaphor for something else and they make us think about our own lives and reflect on our actions. Look at your own family. Are we all really that different? In the beginning of the movie, an Eskimo mother rubs noses with her infant daughter and the scene shifts to a mother deer doing to the same to her young. It’s so easy to get wrapped up in ourselves that we forget we are all a part of something bigger and it’s because of that lesson that I really feel like Brother Bear is a highly underrated animated movie.
Of course, there’s also the fact that bears are my favorite animals…
“My brother Kenai went on to live with Koda and the other bears. He taught me that love is very powerful. And I passed on the wisdom of his story to my people. The story of a boy who became a man… by becoming a bear.”-Denahi