The most imaginative part of this latest Disney animated feature, set in the Pacific Northwest at the end of the Ice Age, is the sunlight on the glaciers. It is magnificently rendered. Other than that lovely glimpse of majesty and artistry, the movie is right off the assembly line, an uninspired and lackluster story told with some visual flourish and a few cute moments but without much energy.
Kenai (voice of Joaquin Phoenix) is the youngest of three brothers. He is impetuous, careless, and very impatient for the coming-of-age ceremony where he will be assigned a “totem,” a symbol that will guide him through life. But he is disappointed by the symbol he receives, a bear, symbolizing love. His brother Sitka (D. B. Sweeny) has the eagle, for leadership, and his brother Denahi (Jason Raize) has the wolf, for wisdom. Kenai does not think either the bear or the love it symbolizes are very important.
Sitka is killed protecting his brothers from a bear. Kenai, enraged, kills it. The Great Spirits want to teach Kenai a lesson, so they use the Northern Lights to transform him into the creature he despises. When Denahi arrives, he thinks Kenai has been killed, and so he hunts the bear, not realizing it is his own brother.
Kenai must make a journey, physical and spiritual, before he can become his true self. Guided by a cheerfully chatty cub named Koda (Jeremy Suarez), Kenai sets off for the place where he can return to human form. But Denahi is pursuing them and other challenges lie ahead. The most important are the lessons Kenai must learn about loss, love, and brotherhood.
The grandeur of the settings is nicely evoked, especially afer Kenai becomes a bear and the screen literally opens up and brightens. There are some exciting moments when Kenai fights the bear and when Kenai and Koda race through a sulfurous geyser field. There are some funny moments with SCTV veterans Dave Thomas and Ric Moranis as a pair of silly moose brothers. But the music by Phil Collins is mediocre, even when legends Tina Turner and the Blind Boys of Alabama do their best to add some spirit.
All cultures have legends of physical transformation as a way of making more accessible the idea of spiritual and emotional change. These stories can be compelling and deeply meaningful, even for children. But here, the story is just too superficial and the script is too pseudo-mythological. The conclusion may strike some in the audience as jarring.
Parents should know that the movie has some tense scenes of peril and two characters are killed. Some children may be disturbed by the way that those characters return as spirits, but some may be reassured that love never dies. There is a little potty humor. The movie’s multi-cultural range of voices and setting in pre-historic Inuit culture add a lot to the movie’s texture.
Families who see this movie should talk about which totems they would like to pick for themselves and what animals they would most like to get a chance to be. What did Kenai learn as a bear that he could not learn as a human? There is an old Native American saying that you should not judge another person until you have walked a mile in his moccosins. How does this movie make handle that idea? What do you think about his decision at the end of the movie? Talk about the movie’s perspective on what you do to make amends when you have done something terrible, and about how siblings should support each other. Be sure that children notice how the look of the movie changes when Kenai becomes a bear. As Kenai sees through a bear’s eyes, we see through his, the entire shape of the screen changing and the colors brightening. As Kenai also learns to listen, the sound of the movie becomes fuller as well.
Families who see this movie will also enjoy Ice Age. Another Disney movie with a character who takes on animal shapes to learn important lessons is The Sword in the Stone. Families might like to find out more about the Northern Lights and about Inuit culture. They should adapt the bears’ discussion of “the most interesting thing that happened” on family dinners and car rides. And they will enjoy playing “I Spy” if they are able to make it a bit more creative than the moose did!