Having watched Ice Age so unnecessarily much lately, we felt it was time to talk about one of the movies in which Disney just hits the nail on the head when it comes to deconstructing masculinity because as we discussed, Ice Age is pretty much exclusively about men and manages to be really weird about it.
So Brother Bear.
“The story of a boy who became a man… by becoming a bear.”
Yikes, that’s kind of clunky. And it’s the last line in the movie, so, double yikes.
We may as well get a bunch of stuff out of the way before we praise this movie, because it isn’t The Lion King. Which is to say, it has flaws.
Flaw Number 1: Goofy Side-Kick Animals
The Canadian moose are cute in a we’re-Canadian-so-we-kinda-haveta-appreciate-this sort of way. They aren’t awful like the gargoyles in Hunchback (arguably) are, but they do take away from the gravity of the story. And we don’t need them to. Koda is an optimistic little guy and basically nothing slows him down, so the moose are a bit too unnecessary for comfort. What’s more is that they’re apparently supposed to add to the “brother” theme of the film, but their mostly carefree relationship is a little out of its depth when compared to the very complicated relationship between Kenai and Koda, or the all-too real one between Sitka, Denahi, and Kenai.
Like. They argue about who’s driving the mammoth. How is that helpful to this story?
We’re still not 100% against them, though – they are the clowns, and we always need clowns (or at least, Disney seems to think so). We just would have liked some tighter writing for them.
Flaw Number 2: This Movie is Kind of Ambitious and… just… well…
Brother Bear is Bambi, if Bambi was about the guy who shot Bambi’s mom getting magicked into a buck and befriending Bambi not knowing that the deer he just killed was his mom and then learning that he killed Bambi’s mom and then having to repair his relationship with Bambi because of that.
The movie does so much of this storyline right. We like the main character. He’s ridiculously likable, and yet we’re never asked to be OK with his vengeance-killing of the random bear at the beginning. Also it’s SUPER obvious that it was Koda’s mom, but Kenai doesn’t figure it out until much later. The movie presents us with Kenai’s flaws right away and asks us to be patient with him as he grows and changes, and takes responsibility and tries to fix things. And we are patient with him! Because he’s likable!
So that’s great, but when it comes time for little Koda to forgive Kenai, the movie skims over the conflict.
Here’s a video of Kenai’s confession scene without the song playing over most of it:
This version is probably better, because it allows the characters to grapple for a little bit longer with the HUGE conflicts the movie has set up for them. But Koda’s decision to forgive Kenai would still be lacking even if they’d stuck with the plan and kept his whole confession in.
Koda watches Rut forgive Tuke for no reason over a non-issue, the major point being that people can change. Cool. But. Koda. He killed your mom.
We needed a little more.
Those are the big problems we had, which means we can move on to our favourite parts.
This movie grapples with some heavy stuff!
When this bear encounter goes wrong, as it obviously was going to, Sitka has to sacrifice himself to save his brothers from the bear. Kenai blames the bear simply because the alternative is admitting that his foolishness is the real reason his brother is dead.
It isn’t until Koda tells the story from his point of view that Kenai finally takes responsibility for his own actions.
As we mentioned above, it does kind of give up at the end. But before that, right up to Kenai confessing to Koda, this movie is a dark and bold redemption narrative.
It is also prepared to actually engage with the questions of animals and humans the way that Ice Age was never bold enough to do. The movie shows us that sometimes animals are dangerous, and sometimes they do kill people. Sometimes humans kill animals for justifiable reasons, and sometimes they kill animals for unjustifiable reasons. And it’s OK. It doesn’t mean we have to hate and fear animals – we should learn from our past mistakes, and we should learn to respect them.
This movie is gorgeous!
Honestly. Every time we talk about Disney movies we take the time to say, “Seriously though the animation is beautiful” and we are running out of synonyms for “beautiful” (not really though, we’ve only said beautiful. But. You get the point). We should stop wasting our time and assume that it never needs to be said that Disney animation is beautiful.
But some movies, like this one, seem to flaunt their beauty like a peacock would. This scene in particular does that. Our eyes are bleeding from the assault of pure joy.
This movie has awesome stuff to say about masculinity!
Kenai firmly believes that love doesn’t have anything to do with being a man. Also, he doesn’t like bears for unspecified reasons – likely because he doesn’t know any. But these two things are the keys to his “becoming a man.”
As a bear, Kenai learns that community is important. He decides that Koda is exempt from his bear-hatred but meeting the rest of them at the salmon run leaves him literally screaming.
Quick sidetrack: what is it about bear-fishing scenes in animation used to develop or strengthen bonds of family? Think Merida and Elinor in Brave. Do, very much think that, because next Disney Day is Mother’s Day so you know what that means. When we watch these scenes we feel bad for the salmon, who as we know, are going home themselves. But. OK.
Kenai decides bears aren’t bad after all, which leaves him with his one important choice at the end: to remain a bear so that he can look after Koda, fulfilling his totem and becoming a man. By becoming a bear.
Unlike movies like The Jungle Book (the animated version) where the clear separation between humans and animals is used to define what manhood is, Brother Bear basically says the opposite. Kenai can’t define himself as a man until he gets over himself with the bear-hate and chooses to live as a bear for his new little brother. Bagheera of 1967 would be very distraught. But probably Baloo would enjoy this. The updated Jungle Book also doesn’t quite define Mowgli against all of the other animals, and Tarzan from Tarzan (-_-) would also rather belong to his community of animals than go back to the British Empire. But Brother Bear is the most insistent of all of these movies that masculinity, and by extension, humanity, should be defined as being connected and in harmony with other animals. We’re in favour of that.
Then there is the question of love. Kenai is pretty horrified by his totem, but the movie shows us that Tanana is right about love being the most precious of totems. Kenai and Koda’s relationship develops over time until they really are like brothers, and at the same time Denahi tracks them down, and their relationship has devolved to grief, anger, and frustration. There’s something to the fact that Kenai is physically incapable of articulating what’s going on to Denahi, which would be all it would take to stop him. But we know how they’re both feeling even if neither of them can express it because animation is awesome.
Where Manny and the baby’s developing bond is only expressed in occasional glances and the friendship between their weird herd is often mocked out of discomfort, Brother Bear just shows us a story about love between men, and the results are clear: this movie is far superior – Canadian moose and giving up at the end and all.
If you haven’t seen Brother Bear or you haven’t seen it in a while, give it a watch.