It’s not just the source text that requires Disney to tweak their stories, either for the sake of cinema, or to avoid reducing their average audience to a quivering mess of tears and denial. Mother Nature is just as guilty a party here, and since there are some great Disney films that I can’t include in the main theme of this blog, I thought I would add a couple of entries focusing on their portrayal of animals and how true they are to life.
I’ll be looking at the species of the main characters only, and, as an obvious disclaimer, I am well aware that animals can’t really talk/use magic/choreograph big musical numbers. This is solely to compare their behaviours and diet etc. as animals.
Let’s start with the (in my opinion) underrated Brother Bear.
When a bear kills his oldest brother, Sidka, Kenai the hunter seeks revenge by ramming a spear through its chest. The spirit of Sidka – embodied by the northern lights – responds by changing him into a bear, either for a laugh or to teach him about perspective. While travelling to the home of the spirits to ask for his human form back, Kenai comes across a cub named Koda who has lost his mother. He was heading to the yearly salmon run, and since this is in the direction of Kenai’s destination, the older bear grudgingly agrees to let him tag along.
They form a close bond in between being hunted by Kenai’s remaining human brother, Denahi, but when they reach the congregation of bears at the salmon run, Kenai finds out that the one he killed was actually Koda’s mother. Unsurprisingly, Koda isn’t impressed at this news and runs away, but later returns having forgiven him, just in time to save Kenai from being speared by Denahi. Then Sidka and the other spirits intervene, and Kenai agrees to remain a bear as penance and to look after Koda. Koda is briefly reunited with his mother’s spirit, and then all four brothers, human, spirit and bear, make amends and live in peace with one another.
Aside from all the spirit magic, would things have been much different if Kenai had been a real bear?
What They Got Right
The first thing on Kenai’s to-do list would have been to eat a shed load of food. Bears are such badasses that if they don’t get enough, they’ll effectively start eating themselves – they can lose a staggering 1,000,000 calories during hibernation, so most of their time has to be spent stuffing their gullet with berries, nuts and of course salmon, which our main characters are seen eating throughout the film. Fresh meat can also form a key part of their diet, and there is an allusion to this too – moose brothers Rutt and Tuke are initially terrified of Kenai in case he devours them on sight, which is a reasonable length to go to to stop their annoying banter.
In fact, the largest recorded bears are the ones whose diet consists primarily of meat, sometimes even other bears, so Kenai’s reaction to meeting Tug is also entirely accurate.
As for Koda, he’s lost his mother and is all by himself. Father fail?
No, not really. Bears are serially monogamous, so they only enjoy one booty call at a time during mating season, but the males don’t stick around for the aftermath. If they do hang around their cubs, it’s for another reason entirely, which I’ll touch upon later.
True to form, in Brother Bear we never see a mother, father and cub unit at any point in the film, even during the montage at the salmon run. However, mother bears are extremely protective of their offspring and Koda’s is no exception, dealing out not one but two hunter smack-downs during the course of the film.
This brings us to one of the main aspects of the story.
Human and Bear Relations
Unlike humans, bears will only really attack humans if threatened, protecting their young or starving – they don’t have a designated “let’s stuff our face with people” season. Having said this, they’re not the kind of animals you want to walk side by side with. A case in point is the story of Timothy Treadwell.
A self-proclaimed “custodian” of grizzly bears, he lived periodically in the wilderness in Alaska, studying and even interacting with the bears, occasionally bringing his girlfriend Amie along. Although there was an ominous feeling to the bears’ presence, there was little outright aggression from the animals, but in 2003, Timothy and his girlfriend were both killed in a bear attack. It’s assumed that the bear shown in the last few hours of footage – which had failed to catch enough salmon and was starving hungry – was responsible, so we’re not really talking about Steve Irwin levels of danger here.
Regardless, they were in close proximity to the bear and in its territory, and opinion is divided as to whether this was too much of an intrusion.
Simply put, normally Mr. Bear won’t deliberately come to get you.
The same is true of Koda’s mother – she only fights because (human) Kenai keeps poking her with an unwanted stick, and he actively seeks her out both times.
What’s more, despite the film’s ending, we only see Kenai and Koda among the human tribe during the celebration. This courtesy hasn’t been extended to the other bears, and so this reinforces the message of humans and bears living peacefully, but also entirely separately, which is surprisingly realistic for a film about spirits turning people into animals and moose hitching a ride on a mammoth.
We’re doing well so far, but there are a couple of points that raise an eyebrow.
What They Got Away With
Kenai and Koda
To Mr. Bear, a cub means a light snack followed by a much improved chance of boning Mrs. Bear. This is one of the reasons why most cubs don’t reach adulthood, so in any other situation Koda would be flattened in as much time as it takes him to form a boastful story about it.
However, Disney get a free pass here because Kenai was originally a human, and since we can assume he wasn’t equally as adept at killing the children of his own tribe, there would be no reason for him to attack Koda.
On a more tenuous note, sub-adult siblings will sometimes travel together, so if Kenai and Koda were genuinely “bros” then this would also be possible.
Kenai’s human origin also explains such behaviour as helping hunters (to a point) and the aforementioned mammoth riding. However, this doesn’t excuse the behaviour of the other bears.
That song. You know which one I mean.
If not, you can “enjoy it” here.
While it’s true that brown bears congregate at the salmon run each year, singing a song about how they are one happy family that share their fish is a step too far. Why?
Despite the sheer abundance of salmon, there is fierce competition for the best fishing spot. Or indeed, any fishing spot whatsoever.
Imagine for instance turning up to the only restaurant in town to find that every single table is reserved, and if you go home, you’ll die of starvation (see the Bear Weight-Loss Plan above). If you so much as walk past another person at their table you’ll likely get a smack round the chops, and if you dare ask when they’ll be going, on a good day you’ll be laughed off the premises, and on a bad day you’ll end up staring at the ceiling with a broken jaw and no teeth left. That’s if the restaurant even let you in in the first place without punching you in the head.
Brown bears face a similar dilemma at the salmon run. Large adult males are at the top of the hierarchy, usually followed by mother bears and their mouthy teenage offpsring, and some bears aren’t even allowed to go near the run at all at the risk of an intense slap-o-rama or full on brawl.
There’s also the aforementioned risk of cubs, a.k.a. entrées, being snapped up by the larger bears if mum doesn’t pay attention. There’s no way that Koda would have survived an encounter with Tug, who we’ve established must be so huge because he has eaten a crap-load of meat.
Plus it’s an awful, awful song.
Brother Bear actually ticks most of the boxes for bear behaviour. They are portrayed as solitary, there are no family units, they eat the right types of food and they do gather to fatten up on salmon. In addition, the relationship between bears and humans is realistic – they won’t bother each other if kept separate, and will usually only attack in defence or to protect their young. The fact that the film reinforces this message by only having Kenai and Koda meet the human tribe, rather than having all the bears and humans mix, is one of the reasons why I think this film is underrated; Disney aren’t known for their subtlety with these kinds of messages.
Any bizarre behaviour is also explained away by Kenai having been turned from a human into a bear. And, you know, by it being a children’s film.
Regarding the salmon run scene, Disney could have made this a comedic struggle between the bears to get the best fishing spot, or Kenai could have been challenged to an epic battle to prove his worth among the others. Instead they show them coming together to swap stories, without any punch-ups or baby-eating, to soften the blow when Kenai decides to remain in his animal form for the rest of his life – it looks so much fun we want him to stay as a bear. But given that most people would swap a life of weaving fish baskets and sibling rivalry for one where you get to stuff your face with food, sleep for half the year and then wake up for the odd sexy liaison, this probably wasn’t necessary.
Accuracy Rating: 7/10
1) Brother Bear, 2003. Film. Directed by Aaron Blaise and Robert Walker, U.S.A. Walt Disney Pictures.
2) Uhlenbroek, Charlotte, Animal Life: The Definitive Visual Guide to Animals and their Behaviour. Dorling Kindersley, Great Britain, 2008. ISBN: 978 1 4053 22157
3) The Life of Mammals, television programme, British Broadcasting Corporation, England, 2002.
4) Stornorov, Derek and Stokes, Allen W., Social Behaviour of the Alaskan Brown Bear (unknown year), Department of Wildlife Resources, Utah State University. http://www.bearbiology.com/fileadmin/tpl/Downloads/URSUS/Vol_2/Stonorov_Stokes.pdf
5) Grizzly Man, 2005. Film. Directed by Werner Herzog. Lions Gate Films.
7) Header image: Grizzly bear and cub by James Galletto http://photography.nationalgeographic.com/wallpaper/photography/photos/animal-mothers-babies/grizzly-bear-greeting/