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Set in an arctic environment, this is a coming of age story of three Inuit brothers. The oldest has the challenge of guiding the other two, who are always squabbling. Each has been given a totem once they came of age to help guide them into manhood. The eldest, Sitka – The Eagle of Guidance. The middle brother, Denahi ‘s totem is Wisdom. The youngest brother, Kenai – The Bear of Love. Feeling insulted at the lack of manliness of his Love totem, and angered at the fact that it is represented by a food-stealing bear, Kenai disregards it. When the eldest brother is lost to them, Kenai feels the need to avenge the death of his family member. Just before Kenai actually kills the bear he believes is responsible for Sitka’s loss, his brother’s spirit turns Kenai into a bear himself. Denahi, seeing the bear but no sign of his younger brother, believes that both of his brothers have now been killed by bears, and pursues Kenai with a crazed obsession to kill him. As Kenai tries to re-orient himself in his new body, he comes across a lost cub (Koda) who has been separated from his mother on their way to the Great Salmon Run. Kenai feels nothing but hatred towards Koda because he is a bear, but allows Koda company because he can guide him to where the “lights touch the earth” so he can find his oldest brother’s spirit, and convince him to change him back into a human. As they fearfully make their way to their destination, with Denahi attacking at every opportunity, Kenai and Koda form a bond that neither of them had known that they desperately needed.
Great loss often is accompanied by anger as part of the grieving process. Through their adventure, we learn that the true meaning of brotherhood and family is, in fact, love. Becoming a man isn’t something you do by being ferocious, or simply accomplishing a traditional ritual. It is something you become when you learn to love and care for your family. Violence not only solves nothing, it also creates a stream of extra problems. We also discover that animals have similarities to humans: they don’t try to be mean and monster-like. The purpose of their behavior is often to care for and protect their family, just like us.
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Tanana: Love is the most precious of totems.
Tanana: Let love guide your actions, and one day, you’ll be a man, and will place your mark next to those of our ancestors.
Tanana: You left too soon, Sitka. Your brothers need your guidance.
[as Kenai transforms into a bear]
Spirit Voices: [in Inuit] Come with me, I’ll take you now to a place that you fear. For no reason why, your heart has turned away from me, and I will make you understand. Everything will become clear to you when you see things through another’s eyes. Everything will become clear to you whatever’s meant for you, you will find. Come with me, I’ll take you there to a place where you’ll see everything you need to be the one you need to be, and all of those things that you feared will disappear from you in time.
(As he sees a cave painting of a bear and a hunter)
Koda: Those monsters are real scary. Especially with their sticks.
(trying to tell Koda what happened to his mother)
Kenai: Koda, there’s… something I ought to… you know that story you told me last night?
Kenai: Well, I have a story to tell you.
Koda: Really? What’s it about?
Kenai: Well, it’s kind of about a man… and kind of about a bear. But mostly, it’s about a monster.
Denahi as an Old Man: My brother Kenai went on to live with Koda and the other bears. He taught me that love is very powerful. And I passed on the wisdom of his story to my people. The story of a boy who became a man… by becoming a bear.