Please note this article contains spoilers.
When writing about siblings it’s easy to take one of two polarized approaches: either we’re expected to choke down a saccharine, sanitized, Brady Bunch relationship or we end up with what’s essentially a sibling cage match chock full of enmity and disgust.
So how do you make a movie about three teenage-to-twenty-something brothers without taking either extreme? Enter Disney’s Brother Bear, one of the most underrated animated masterpieces of the 2000s. I have five brothers and consider myself a pretty accurate judge on what it actually is like to have brothers.
I can’t imagine life without them. They can always be depended on to laugh with me until we snort (no lady like manners required), whoop my butt at Super Smash Bros (I just can’t get the hang of that one), and appreciate a good fart joke. So when I watched Brother Bear and discovered that it not only nailed that real-life sibling dynamic, but that it was entirely about the relationship between brothers, I knew I had to share this gem with my fellow twenty-somethings who might be searching for something similar.
Brother Bear tells the story of three brothers living with their tribe in the wilds of Canada circa 10,000 B.C. Kenai, the youngest, is a headstrong and selfish teenager and also the main character. Denahi is the middle brother, caught halfway between growing up and becoming a man. These two troublemakers often need their fights to be broken up by the oldest brother, Sitka, who’s the epitome of the chill, confident older brother.
Here are the four ways that Kenai, Denahi, and Sitka show us what it’s like to be part of a brotherhood: the good, the bad, and the ugly.
They fight and tease, but they don’t bully.
Sibling rivalry can be taken too far in the name of humor, resulting in onscreen bullying which viewers are expected to find entertaining. Brother Bear smoothly avoids falling into this typical trap. However, in a movie about three guys you’re not exactly going to have people tiptoeing around each others’ feelings. The movie is rife with teasing and poking fun, but boundaries are never crossed.
When Kenai’s disappointed in his totem (the Bear of Love), Denahi doesn’t hesitate to start mocking him with the new nickname “lover boy.” Even easy-going Sitka refers to his younger brothers as “boneheads” — but five minutes later he’s risking his life to save them.
The brothers are aware of their affection for each other, so when they tease (even when they really get on each other’s nerves) there’s never any doubt that their goofing around is just that.
Family is most important, but they don’t always remember that.
Unlike idealized families that crop up in other stories, the brothers will often take each other for granted. This is the negative side to something positive: they support each other unfailingly through so many dangers of pre-modern Canada that they come to expect each other to always be there. It’s only when tragedy strikes that the brothers can step back and recognize the bravery and devotion they each demonstrate toward their family.
They support each other without being sentimental.
When they do appreciate each other, they manage to do that in a much more grounded way than, say, the Waltons. Telling your little brother that one day he’ll be man enough to put his hand print on the cave of his ancestors is pretty much the 10,000 B.C. version of saying, “Dude, you’re alright.”
And being a Disney movie, things get even more dramatic than that, but still in a believable way. (Well, as believable as you can get in a movie that’s about a man being transformed into a bear by his older brother.) At the climax of the movie, Denahi encourages Kenai to make a choice that’s best for newcomer and adopted baby brother Koda, even though it will be hardest on Denahi.
They want to spend time together — but they don’t always like it.
Ever heard that phrase, “You should love your neighbor, but you don’t have to like them”? That can be applied to sibling relationships, too! Just because siblings don’t always act like Lizzie and Matt McGuire doesn’t mean we’re keen on being together 24/7.
The brothers do everything together; hunt for food, kayak down the freezing rapids, and dodge stampedes, but they’re not always warm and fuzzy about it. Sometimes it’s fun (kayak sledding might take the number one spot), but other times, one of them might just want to be left alone.
Since the release of Frozen, the trend has been to focus on sisters, but it’s a nice change of pace to lend the spotlight to the guys for once. When I started this article I had planned to look at Brother Bear and Big Hero 6, but I realized that trying to cram the analysis of two of my favorite films into 800 words would be an injustice to both.
So, if you’re intrigued by Disney’s refreshing take on brothers, I highly recommend checking out Big Hero 6, also a fantastic look at brotherhood. Perhaps this calls for a double feature!