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Approximately 10,000 years ago in the Pacific Northwest, three native brothers (Kenai, Denahi and Sitka) forge out a comfortable and happy life within their tribe. Both Sitka (the eldest) and Denahi have received their ceremonial totem. Now it's Kenai's turn. (This charm worn around the neck represents a virtue, but is more than symbolic. Given by the tribe’s shaman after receiving specific instruction from the Great Spirits, the totem serves as a personal director of one’s destiny.) So when Tanana gives bear-hating Kenai a totem of a grizzly and tells him it represents love, he’s greatly disappointed. He had something of more significance in mind.
Meanwhile, Kenai discovers that a bear has made off with his basket of fish and sets off with spear in hand to track down this pilfering brute—Sitka and Denahi in hot pursuit. Soon, in a frightful man vs. beast confrontation, Sitka realizes Kenai is about to be mauled to death and sacrifices his own life to save his brother. To avenge his sibling, Kenai tracks down the bear and kills it. Instantly, the Great Spirits (depicted as the Northern Lights) metamorphose Kenai into a bear. Now it’s Denahi who is on the hunt (unaware that if successful he will actually slay his own brother). So in an effort to trade fur for skin (and try to save his hide), Kenai follows Tanana’s direction to find his brother on the “mountain where the light touches the earth.” Joining the expedition is a young bear looking for his mother and two slow-witted moose along for the ride (and some comic relief).
While the brotherly trio roughhouse and tease each other, there is never a question about these boys' care for one another. Sitka offers the ultimate example of that care when he lays down his life to spare Kenai (he triggers an icefall that plummets him to his death and separates the bear from his brothers). Although at first irritated by bear cub Koda, Kenai (in bear form) spares his life, and later attempts to rescue his brother from falling off a cliff. Wisdom and love are held in high esteem. Other tribe members interact lovingly (e.g., a mother hugs a daughter and gives her a necklace). Tuke and Rutt (the moose brothers) reconcile after a fight and tell each other, “I love you.”
If the eco-pantheism of Pocahontas could be quantifiably boiled down and deposited in a container, that, let’s say, filled a quart canning jar, then this film’s spiritualism would fill an oil drum. Brother Bear’s New Agey worldview doesn’t just guide the story along, it's heavy handed—like an animated What Dreams May Come.
I’m not accusing Disney of some kind of agenda here. It’s just that once again, they don’t get it when it comes to how families of faith interact with films aimed at their children. Namely, that a stew of Hinduism, ancestor worship and Gaia mysticism doesn't make for happy spectators. Underneath it all is the onscreen belief that living beings are part of a cosmic brotherhood and that when man and beast die, all enter an eternal celestial home collectively making up the pantheistic Great Spirits. Taken to its logical extreme (which the film doesn’t explore directly), what comes across is the underpinnings of a we-are-all-divine-and-have-Godness-within theology. For instance, we learn from the shaman that the “spirits of our ancestors ... have power to make changes.” [Spoiler Warning] Both Sitka and the bear—actually Koda’s mother killed by Kenai—return in spirit form at film’s end. In death they have become part of the Great Spirits that guide life in general and all living things specifically.
These Great Spirits are said to reveal a totem “to guide us.” At a funeral-like cremation, the shaman offers Sitka’s spirit to the Great Spirits. Denahi warns Kenai, “Don’t upset the spirits” before “they” transform Kenai into a bear (later we’re told it was Sitka’s doing alone). The shaman tells Kenai that if he wants to revert to a human he must “take it up with your brother’s spirit.” Tribal members are shown in a type of ancient worship dance—assumedly worshiping their own ancestors since it’s the departed who make up the Great Spirits divinity.
Looking at the Northern Lights, a young bear cub explains, “My grandma and grandpa are up there.” There is also the pervading message that man and beast are part of some universal brotherhood. [Spoiler Warning] This is no more clearly portrayed than in the closing moments when Kenai, who has been changed back into a human, requests that the spirit of his older brother transform him back into a bear. During the credits, an “outtake” features a meditating moose leading bears in similar relaxation and offering a salutation to the sun.
When two amorous bears romantically embrace and kiss, another bear quips, “Get a cave.”
The hoof of a stampeding caribou grazes Denahi’s face while he and his brothers seek shelter from the charging herd. A whale tips a canoe (no damage to man or means). The shaman playfully throws a boot at the bear-shaped Kenai. A few intense scenes—especially for younger children—involve man battling bear (even to the death). The gravity of some of these scenes are heightened when it's known that Denahi is chasing his brother in bear form.
Crude or Profane Language
No major or minor profanities are utilized. There are a few insults exchanged (“dog breath” “pine cone breath,” “fat head"). Birds flying overhead are said to have “pooped.”
Drug and Alcohol Content
Likely to go over the heads of the target audience, one moose tells his brother they should celebrate their reconciliation with a “cool bed of malted hops.”
Other Negative Elements
Like any number of other Disney films, parents of the human characters are nowhere to be found. Also, roughhousing with Kenai, Denahi allows spittle to extend several inches out of his mouth, threatening his brother with the slime-bath (the goo never reaches its target). As a bear, Kenai promises Koda that he can join his expedition if the young cub helps the human-beast out of a trap. When Koda obliges, Kenai is at first reluctant to uphold his end of the bargain. Koda explains he has discovered it is not good to “eat yellow or green snow.”
Brother Bear is no Lion King or Monsters Inc. It’s more like Jungle Book 2—easily forgotten and bearly worth the time. But with the MPAA granting it a G rating, a lot of families are going to assume all is well in the brotherhood. It's not. Although there are several praiseworthy messages (the moose brothers' reconciliation and the sacrificial death of Kenai’s brother among them), families wanting a peek will be forced to wade through rivers of spiritual muck. Believe me, it's not worth it.
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Voices of Joaquin Phoenix as Kenai; Jeremy Suarez as Koda; Rick Moranis as Rutt; Dave Thomas as Tuke; D.B. Sweeney as Sitka; Jason Raize as Denahi; Joan Copeland as Tanana
Aaron Blaise ( ), Bob Walker ( )