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When Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker won the Golden Lion, the top film award at the 2019 Venice Film Festival, in September, it came as a shock to many. But reviews out of Venice and then TIFF confirmed the hype. Audiences and critics alike were pleasantly surprised, and most seemed to agree with the film’s snag of the Venice prize. Sentiment toward the movie has gotten murkier as its release date approaches, though: think pieces, theories, and controversy surrounding the film and its implications abound.
Nonetheless, Phoenix has been praised for his performance in Joker, and the movie seems to be on its way to earning its place amongst the actor’s other chilling and affecting performances from films like Her, Gladiator, Walk the Line, The Master, and even I’m Still Here.
However, one of Phoenix’s early performances that predates all of the aforementioned titles usually flies under the radar. In Disney’s animated film Brother Bear (2003), Phoenix voiced Kenai, an Inuit boy who kills a bear — and then becomes one himself.
The story is profound, but slightly confusing when described in one fell swoop. So, bear with me here (pun absolutely intended): Kenai kills a mama bear as retribution for killing his brother. The mama bear had a cub named Koda. Kenai then endures a Freaky Friday-esque transformation into a bear, and while he is a bear, he develops a sibling-like relationship with Koda. For most of the film, Kenai doesn’t know that the bear he killed was Koda’s mother, and vice versa. Once Kenai realizes that he killed Koda’s mother, he tells the cub. Then, Kenai raises Koda as his own, as his younger brother (hence the title).
The film’s whole premise of surrogate-parenthood-by-the-original-parent’s-murderer is simultaneously an epic departure from Disney’s other animated movies and (eerily) very characteristic of the sort of high-intensity roles Phoenix is known for mastering. In a way, it makes sense that Phoenix chose Brother Bear out of all the Disney movies in which to voice act. The fraught, guilt-filled internal conflict Kenai endures once he realizes that he killed Koda’s mother is a struggle reminiscent of those faced by Phoenix’s other multi-faceted, uniquely human characters.
That said, the film is still sweet and heartwarmingly goofy, as Disney films are wont to be. What makes it a contender as one of Disney’s strongest animated features is how delicately and compassionately it deals with tough topics, such as grief, loss, regret, identity, and forgiveness.
Brother Bear‘s narrative emphasizes healing via shared understanding. Kenai is essentially punished for his use of violence against the bear he killed by forming such a deep connection with the cub he single-handedly orphaned. Both Kenai and Koda grieve the loss of their kin and find comfort in each other. Kenai learns that violence isn’t the answer, and the entire film is a crash course in complex, unconditional empathy toward others.
The movie has a knack for including the best parts of Disney animated features, such as a happy-go-lucky original soundtrack by Phil Collins, while steering clear of widely used harmful tropes and gendered stereotypes. For example, there’s no princess conforming to unrealistic beauty standards in sight. In fact, the movie’s fantastical take on the idea that “what’s on the inside is more important than what’s on the outside” indirectly combats the fatal flaws that are so central to many of the Disney films that predate it.
Whether you need another Phoenix flick to lift your spirits after Joker, or you’re forgoing the controversial blockbuster at all costs, Brother Bear is certainly worth the watch.
Brother Bear is available to rent or buy on Amazon Prime, iTunes, or YouTube.