Brother Bear (2003)

C Note: This review was co-written with a guest critic. Suzanne E. Greydanus and SDG

Bears are people too. No, actually, bears are better than people. They only fight when they are attacked first. They aren’t territorial; they like to share their fish. Then after a good catch, they sit around and tell stories around the fire. That must be why when they die, they get to be colorful spirits in the sky that control what happens on earth just like people do. Of course, they get to keep their own shapes up there, while humans have to change into animals first.

2003, Walt Disney. Directed by Aaron Blaise and Bob Walker. Joaquin Phoenix, Jeremy Suarez, Jason Raize, Rick Moranis, Dave Thomas, D.B. Sweeney, Michael Clarke Duncan.

Artistic/Entertainment Value

Moral/Spiritual Value


Age Appropriateness

Kids & Up*

MPAA Rating


Caveat Spectator

Fuzzy New-Age eco-spirituality; some scary scenes and violence, including offscreen deaths; mild gross-out humor.

Based on a long-unfinished project dating to the New-Age / ultra-PC heyday of Disney’s ’90s renaissance, Brother Bear outdoes even Pocahontas and Atlantis: The Lost Empire with its New-Age mysticism and eco-spirituality gospel message.

After Atlantis, it seemed that Disney had finally given up flogging the dead horse and moved on to creative new efforts with films like The Emperor’s New Groove, Lilo & Stitch, and Treasure Planet.

Unfortunately, while all of those films were worthy efforts, only Lilo & Stitch made any money, and other than trading in on their classic heritage with inferior sequels like Jungle Book 2 and Return to Never Land, the Mouse House appears to be officially out of ideas. With Brother Bear, a throwback to what was worst in Disney nouveau, Disney animation’s attempts to recover from the collapse of its renaissance have come to an end with a whimper, not a bang, or even a growl. In fact, for the first time in who knows when, other than next year’s Home on the Range Disney has no new traditional hand-drawn / 2D animated features in the works and no plans to begin any.

Brother Bear is the story of three Native American brothers thousands of years ago — wise older brother, spirited middle brother, and angry, irresponsible younger brother. We learn right away that every tribe member has a totem — a spirit guide by which they are supposed to try to live. This guide is in the form of an animal, and it is revealed to the "wise woman" who presents it to you when you reach adulthood.

The oldest brother is an eagle, the middle one, a wolf, and the youngest one, Kenai, is eagerly awaiting what his totem will turn out to be. He hopes for something manly, like a saber-toothed tiger. His brother suggests that it should be a wooly mammoth for his big head. When the wise woman reveals his totem, it turns out to be… a bear. The bear, supposedly representing the totem of love, is a disappointment to Kenai, who hates bears and thinks "living by love" sounds like a sissy thing to do.

When Kenai irresponsibly loses the fish catch for the day, he childishly blames the bear who helped himself to the basket of fish, and goes after it. The bear, showing itself to definitely not be a sissy, almost kills him. The oldest brother, in saving Kenai, gets killed instead and then turns into one of the colorful spirits in the sky — in the form of an eagle, his totem.

Kenai, in avenging his brother, then kills the bear. The spirits decide to teach him a lesson in walking a mile in someone else’s mocossins, or paws, in this case, by turning Kenai into a bear. When the middle brother catches up, he sees the remnants of his younger brother’s clothes and mistakes this bear for the one that has now supposedly killed both of his brothers. Now this remaining brother seeks to avenge the death of his two brothers by killing the bear who really is his younger brother in disguise.

What ensues now is Kenai-as-bear trying to get to the place where the spirits meet the earth so that he can talk his brother into changing him back, while avoiding his other brother who is trying to track him down in order to kill him. He travels with a bear cub, who has been separated from his mother and wants a companion to reach the place where he thinks that he will find her. Kenai, who does not appreciate his Disney sidekick, does the rude, tiresome "we’re not friends" schtick (cf. Ice Age, Shrek, etc.) practically to the end of the movie, agreeing to stick with him for purely selfish reasons.

Even apart from the thickly-laid-on New-Age mysticism, there are other reasons to take a pass on this schlock. The kids in the audience at our viewing were mostly either bored or scared. At least two families walked out in the middle. Despite the friendly-sounding name and cuddly marketing campaign, Brother Bear is scarier than its Lion King role model. The moral point of Kenai-as-bear’s journey will be lost on most kids, and not much happens to him along the way that isn’t either tense, scary or involving his endless selfish rantings. Even the attempted comic relief, provided by a pair of dim-witted Canadian moose, falls flat.

Kenai, who was immature and selfish as a human, remains so as a bear right up to the end. Except for the unconvincing redemptive twist at the very end where he gets in touch with his inner bear, he doesn’t seem to mature or learn anything about living by his "totem" of love.

Adventure, Animation, Family