Bear Hugs: Brother Bear

Veteran’s Day weekend is always a big deal at our house. Since my husband is a veteran, I always try to make the day special. To start off the weekend right, we watched Brother Bear together. He watches some of the Disney project films with me, but not all of them. I’ve been trying to get him to watch Brother Bear for ages. The fact that it takes place in Alaska finally won him over.
      I distinctly remember seeing Brother Bear in theatres, crying my eyes out and thinking, this is it; Disney is back! I even waited to see it at the dollar theatre in the town where I lived; it didn’t even rate enough to see it in the nice theatre (which, at the time, charged $5 a ticket; that says a lot!). Despite the hard chair, sticky floor and smelly room of the dollar theatre, the film was worth it all. I couldn’t even remember the last time I’d cried in a Disney movie.
      Part of what I love about BB is the Native American connection. Only one other Disney film (that I’ve seen) contains Native American heritage, and it’s Pocahontas. I’ll talk about my childhood thrill of Pocahontas in that chapter, but I loved it mostly because it had some connection to my own Native American heritage. BB has both that heritage and it takes place in the state where I live, so it’s pretty high up on my favorites list at the moment.
      It was interesting to watch the film with James. At the same moment when Kenai realizes what happened to Koda’s mother, James realized it as well. He was shocked. He was also pretty surprised when a character dies pretty early on. As Sitka sacrificed himself for his brothers, I turned to him and said, “Oh, I should have warned you—this movie is super sad.” And it is. But it’s also incredibly beautiful, both in story and visual aspects.
      The character names are all connected to Alaska in some way. Sitka and Kenai are places, for example. Denahi is awfully close to Denali, the largest mountain in North America. The Canadian moose are spot-on visually, with their clumsiness, but also provide a lot of humor in moments that could become overly serious.
      Basically, it has the balance between humor, moral lesson and touching moments that make Disney movies so spectacular.
      It was very cool—and meaningful—for us to see the landscape we live in painted on the screen. The scenery and depiction of wildlife were terrific. However, in summer, the Northern Lights aren’t actually visible because the sun is out for 18-23 hours a day, depending on where you are in Alaska. The salmon only run in the summer, and they swim upstream (at the salmon run in the film, it shows some going downstream. I instantly defended Disney and said the fish were swimming away from the bears, but who knows). The Northern Lights are magical in the film, so I can let their summer-presence slide.
      Of course I watched the Special Features, and discovered that multiple research trips were taken to Alaska and California. I also learned that aspects from multiple Native American cultures were used, which I actually rather like—it appeals to a broader audience by including a broader audience. It was really cool to see their research trips to Alaska, with actual video footage. There’s one scene of someone sketching on a hillside in this huge area of mountains and sky and view, and it looked just like Hatcher’s Pass—an area we frequent for hiking and scenic photography. It could have been, and that’s part of what makes watching the film so interesting. We try to guess where they were and what they were inspired by. A film studio is actually shooting Frozen Ground, a horror movie based on actual events, in Anchorage this month. It stars John Cusack and Nicholas Cage. But it’s scary and not Disney and scary, so I won’t be seeing it (sadly). I love seeing places I’ve been or lived on film. Seeing it in animation makes it even more special. At some point, I’ll probably start dreaming in animation.
      It’s mid-November and we have at least a foot of snow on the ground. We ran out and bought a $6 sled at Target and I took James sledding for the first ever (well, he claims he’s been the one time in snowed in Tallahassee; but his ‘sled’ was a cardboard box, so I don’t think it counts. We used a smallish hill behind our apartment, and it was lots of fun. There’s something about flying down a snowy hill on a small piece of plastic, getting covered in snow, feeling like your fingers will fall off from being so cold that just makes you feel five years old again. Well, for me it does. It was crazy cold—in the teens or twenties—but it was even colder this morning (7) (no really, it was literally seven degrees outside. See, it’s less than ten so I have to spell it out). Will we go sledding again when I get home from work and before James goes into work? Most likely.
      I began watching Rutt and Tuke’s commentary on the film, but since I’d just watched it I didn’t really want to watch the whole film again right away. But it was absolutely hilarious. If I loved BB as much as I love The Lion King, I probably could watch the commentary back-to-back with the film. But, while it is currently in my top list, it’s still not The Lion King.
      I have to say, I really love the message of BB. Love is often looked up as a weak emotion, but it’s really quite strong. And vengeance? Not so great. It might feel good for a minute, but is a minute of feeling good worth a lifetime of guilt? I don’t think so. That’s why Kenai’s lesson is so important—he started the fight (with a bear! Who does that?!), he put his brothers in danger, he blamed the bear for his brother’s death, killed the bear…only to discover she was only trying to protect her cub. Then he learns that this adorable, funny ball of fur has lost his mom, and it’s all his (Kenai’s) fault. It’s a hard truth to grapple with. It’s this huge moment when the audience realizes Kenai killed little Koda’s mom.

            Something that interests me is how psychology interweaves with Disney films. By making the characters, especially the baby animals, all cutesy and drawing that white reflection in their pupil, as an audience we’re more likely to feel sympathy for them. They humanize the animals so we feel for them. In BB, the bear’s eyes before Kenai becomes a bear are just small black dots. He doesn’t see them as empathetic creatures, so neither do we (the audience). We’re seeing his story through his eyes, and he sees the bear as a monster, thus we do as well. When Kenai becomes a bear, all the bears become cuter; their eyes become more human. It’s interesting how we empathize with those most like us. Like Pocahontas shows John Smith, sometimes nature and humans can live together in harmony– but only if they recognize the wild as their equal.

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