While many children love Disney movies (and other animated films), I feel like more and more of these movies have elements that only adults can appreciate. While Brother Bear first came out about eight years ago, this movie has a depth that in recent times has really touched me.
The three brothers introduced in the beginning - Kenai, Denahi, and Sitka - each have their own totems, which symbolize what they need to embrace in order to become men (a cultural practice). In the following discussion of the movie, I'm going to break down what I've learned in terms of those three symbols. (Warning: Spoilers included.)
Kenai's totem is the "bear of love," and his is the most obvious of the three because of Kenai's prominent role in the story. I think it's important to note that Kenai is the youngest of the three brothers. In the beginning he's rather immature, lacks a sense of responsibility, and shows a self-centered nature. Of course, part of his demeanor is rather charming as the fun-loving youngest sibling. On the other hand, when he lashes out at the bear he blames for the death of Sitka, his brother's spirit decides that Kenai has a lot to learn about love. Kenai is transformed into a bear, and his journey to discover what it takes to be a man (a journey he doesn't seem to realize he's taking) begins.
Forgiveness - As a bear, Kenai gains a new perspective on the suffering brought about by the vicious circle of blame and revenge. His own brother, Denahi, is hunting him (not realizing that the bear is Kenai), and Denahi is slowly falling apart. He's barely surviving in the harsh elements of the wilderness, and he's fueled only by a sense of killing the bear that played a part in the supposed death of Kenai. Kenai is able to see how he once was, and his heart goes out to the brother that is so desperately lost.
But that's only part of the story. Kenai also realizes that his new little "brother" - the adorable bear, Koda - is the child of the mother bear he killed. Suddenly, he is given a much broader perspective on the thoughtlessness of his actions and on the pain brought about by his own hand. He once viewed bears as "monsters," but through Koda's eyes he sees that bears view humans as "monsters." Only through forgiveness and a fresh perspective is Kenai (and Denahi) set free.
Family - A main focus of love in this movie is on family. Kenai is accepted by the bears as one of them, and he is moved by the fun and fellowship that they share. At the beginning of the movie he once had that connection with his own blood brothers and in his own village, and in the end he embraces it once again with his new brother bear (Koda) and back in his village. When he finally learns love, he's able to put his print (paw print instead of hand print, in his case) on the wall along with the prints of his ancestors, signifying his move into adulthood.
Denahi's totem is "wisdom." While he enjoys tormenting his brothers, after the death of Sitka he tells Kenai that he's trying to embrace his totem by not going after the bear - a fruitless endeavor that won't bring about any good. But in his pain he tells Kenai, "I don't blame the bear" - meaning that he blamed Kenai for their older brother's death. When he goes after Kenai to try to stop him from killing the bear, he doesn't make it in time, and he mistakes his newly transformed brother for the bear whom he thinks is responsible for Kenai's death. It's confusing if you're unfamiliar with the story, but the point is that Denahi "loses" both of his brothers, and he chooses a path of revenge.
Understanding - While the idea of "understanding" fits well with Kenai's character and his need for love, I think Denahi really "fulfills" his totem when he gains understanding. Denahi gets to see who Kenai has become, as well as what he himself has become as dictated by revenge. At the beginning of the movie, Denahi liked to consider himself as wise, but it is when he sees his own brother embracing love that he is able to embrace wisdom.
Note Proverbs 17:24, which says, "Wisdom is before him that hath understanding; but the eyes of the fool are in the ends of the earth."
Sharing - The very first scene is of Denahi as an older man, introducing his brother's story to his community. The idea behind the movie is that Denahi is narrating the story (in a sense), and his voice-over comes back in the very last scene. Denahi learned true wisdom from his brother's story, and in wisdom he shares that lesson with others.
Sitka's totem is the "eagle of guidance." As the older brother, Sitka was the one who tried to help his younger brothers, and he was the one who sacrificed his own life in order to save his brothers from the mother bear. He appears throughout the rest of the movie (after his death) as a spirit and as an eagle. It's interesting to realize how often the eagle is shown at the edge of a scene, constantly watching over his brothers.
Meaning - In Phil Collins' song "Look Through My Eyes," there's a line that says, "There's a meaning in everything." Throughout Brother Bear it is amazing to see how all the little details fit together - how the utter despair plays a part in the ultimate joy of the movie. And isn't that what we believe as Christians? Romans 8:28 says, "And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to this purpose."
One part shows this especially well: When Kenai tells Koda that his brother has died and that it's because of his brother (Sitka) that he's there (meaning that it was Sitka's fault he was a bear and dealing with all of these problems), Koda looks up to the Northern Lights and gratefully tells Sitka, "If it wasn't for you, I would have never met Kenai." Then Koda tells Kenai, "I always wanted a brother." Kenai looks up, too, with a look of wonder and uncertainty on his face...
Plan - I love how Sitka is shown throughout the movie (beginning as a human, and then later on as an eagle), being there for his brothers whether they are aware of his presence or not. There's a plan involved, and each brother is learning something that will help him to become a man - something that will help him mature and become who he is supposed to be.
Isn't it wonderful to know that even when we don't "see" God, He's watching over us and guiding us? He will provide guidance; He hears us when we cry out in despair and confusion. Even though He knows that His plan for us includes suffering and pain that we won't understand, it is because He loves us that He brings us through those difficult times to grow us into the men and women in Christ that we are supposed to become.
This movie may talk about the "great spirits," but the take-away lessons of Brother Bear have much to offer us as believers in the one true God. Beautiful animation, some humorous moments, and a heartfelt message make this a movie full of life and hope.
May we learn to show more love, be more understanding, and trust more in God's guidance.
(Image from Phil Collins fan site; movie from YouTube.com.)