Being the youngest of three brothers, Kenai was more childish and impulsive than Denahi and Sitka, displayed by the fact that he went instantly to hunt a bear even though he was unprepared for it, and when he was very angry for Denahi's mocking.
Originally, Kenai was very prejudging, seeing bears as thieves and monsters even though he knew very little about them. This hate caused him to blame a bear for losing the fishes, even though he himself forgot to tie up the net with the fish. Kenai's hate for bears reached its peak when Sitka died while fighting the bear, blaming the bear for the tragedy, even through Sitka gave up his own life to save his brothers from what Kenai started, even going to successfully kill the bear only for revenge and hate.
Kenai also seemed to see manhood stereotypically as being a tough warrior, as he believed that he would get a totem of bravery or something similar, and was very disappointed when his totem turned out to be love. During his and Denahi's argument after Sitka's funeral, he claimed that a man would not just let the bear live. Over time, however, he came to embrace his totem.
After being transformed into a bear and being forced to travel with Koda, however, Kenai showed to be able to learn from his mistakes, as was his bond with Koda what made him learn that bears are not killers and even came to see the young cub as a little brother. Additionally, his constants attacks by Denahi made him learn to see things through another's eyes, as he came to realize how bears feel when they are hunted. Kenai also showed to be remorseful, as he was devastated when he realized the bear he killed was Koda's mother and was further saddened when Koda disowned him upon learning the truth. Kenai felt so remorseful for what he did that even came to see himself as the real monster for acting out of hate.
If there is one trait that remained in Kenai through his journey, it was his love for his family, as he shared a close bond with his brothers, and was Sitka's death what led him to kill Koda's mother. This love also caused him to not to attack, and even try to save, Denahi when he attempted to kill Kenai. This trait was also depicted in his bond with Koda, as he slowly came to see him as his young brother. Once he finally found the mountain where the lights touch the earth, he showed reluctance in leaving Koda, and when he learned he killed Koda's mother, he was shamed enough that he even ran away from the salmon run, and was devastated when Koda practically disowned him once he learned the truth, and only because of this he chose to go to the mountain, as he felt there was no purpose in remaining a bear if Koda no longer loved him. Even there, he was devastated by Koda's disownment, claiming that the only reason he went to the mountain was that he did not know what else to do. Ultimately, when Koda forgave him for what happened and when it became clear Koda needed him, Kenai decided give up his humanity to properly take care of Koda. This action was what finally made Kenai accomplish his life-long dream to become a man.
Kenai is a young Inuit who is the youngest of three brothers, after Sitka, his tribe's chief, and Denahi and is on the verge of becoming a man. But after rushing to get his totem from Tanana, the tribe's shamaness, which depicts a bear, an animal that symbolizes love, and the one animal he hates, believing that they are dangerous monsters, and forgetting to tie up his brothers' net so that the bears will not get their salmon, a bear attacks the tribe, and he and his brothers are forced to fight it off, but Sitka dies saving him and Denahi in the process. After getting into an argument with Denahi at Sitka's funeral, Denahi tells him Sitka sacrificed himself for them and does not blame the bear, resulting in Kenai throwing his bear totem in the cremation pyre where Sitka's remains (reduced to his shattered totem, broken spear, and tattered clothes) were cremated, Kenai believes that the bear was responsible for Sitka's death, and decides to kill the animal at all costs, to avenge his brother. Kenai tries to convince Denahi that they should go after the bear, but Denahi refuses and advises Kenai not to kill the bear, as it may anger the spirits, but a frustrated Kenai blows him off and sets out to kill the bear anyway.
Kenai succeeds in killing the bear, but for acting out of hate rather than out of love, as he had been commanded to do, the spirits turn Kenai himself into a bear as punishment for his actions. However, when Denahi arrives at the scene, he had no idea that his brother was transformed into a bear, he believes that the bear Kenai got transformed into had killed Kenai and vowed revenge. As Denahi is about to kill Kenai, the bear is hit by lightning and is sent falling into a river, only to run into Tanana (who cannot understand bears' language) the next morning. Learning from Tanana, in order to become human again, Kenai had to travel to a mountain peak called, "the place where the (Northern) lights touch the earth." Along the way, however, Kenai meets an orphaned bear cub named Koda. At first, Kenai does not like the young bear's company, but eventually, he becomes attached to him. After escaping one of Denahi's (who still does not know that Kenai was turned into a bear) attempts to kill him by escaping inside a glacier, Koda tells Kenai that he was separated from his mother, and decides that Kenai should help him find her by accompanying him to the Salmon Run.
Kenai and Koda then befriend a pair of moose named Rutt and Tuke, and travel toward the mountains, but decide to ride on woolly mammoths to get there faster. After getting off the mammoth, but leaving the moose behind, the two bears get into an argument ending with Koda abandoning Kenai and storming off alone, only to enter an abandoned cave full of cave paintings showing bears being attacked by "monsters with sticks" (according to Koda). After getting directions from a pair of rams, Kenai and Koda try to work their way through a lava field while attempting to escape Denahi again, until the two bears arrive at a waterfall at the base of the mountain, where an entire troop of bears is participating in a salmon run. After getting to know those bears more, Kenai realizes that he was wrong about them being monsters, and bears are really nice animals the whole time. The bear troupe welcomes Kenai, and treat him as his new family, with Koda being his new younger brother, until it is time for them to tell stories to each other by passing a dead salmon to one another, and it is Koda's turn to tell a story. Koda tells a story about his mother fighting human hunters, making Kenai realize in horror that the bear he killed was Koda's mother.
Shocked and horrified, Kenai runs away, but Koda soon finds him. Kenai reveals the truth to Koda, who runs away, grief-stricken. Kenai sadly heads up the mountain alone to find Sitka, only to find Denahi, now furious, waiting for him. As Denahi was about to deliver the final blow on Kenai, Koda, after listening to the mooses' advice during another encounter with them, saves Kenai from death by taking Denahi's spear to distract Kenai so that he can run off and get Sitka to change him back, only to accidentally drop the spear, allowing Denahi to try and kill him instead. When Kenai finds out that Koda is now the one in danger, he jumps between the two, attempting to sacrifice himself the same way as Koda's mother did before he killed her, and as a result, Sitka (whose ghost takes the form of an eagle, who was watching them the whole time) declares Kenai's bravery and an act of brotherhood and saves Kenai by turning him into a human again.
However, since Koda no longer has his mother (whose spirit arrives so that her son can say goodbye to her) with him, Kenai chooses to remain a bear permanently and stay in the woods and live with Koda, who needed him more than any of his own people. For this act of love, Kenai was declared to have become a man through being a bear.
In Brother Bear 2, Kenai awakens from his first hibernation to find that spring has arrived (Kenai separated from Denahi, Tanana, and his villagers to care for Koda, but may still visit them offscreen). Even with snow on the ground and the trees still bare, love is decidedly in the air. Kenai and Koda scoff at the notion of romance, but Tug (the large, dark brown bear from the first film) cautions them (Kenai in particular) that "You can't run from love. It has a way of tracking you down." Kenai laughs, but later has a dream about Nita, a girl he used to know when he was young and a human. During the dream, Kenai saves Nita after she falls into water, Kenai gives her his amulet to remember him by before they paint a picture of themselves on a cave wall. After Nita has move home with her tribe.
Meanwhile, in her own village, Nita is preparing for her wedding to a man named Atka. But when the big moment arrives, the ceremony was interrupted by the great spirits. The earthquake destroyed everything in its path, it is revealed that Nita cannot marry Atka. The reason for this is because Kenai gave Nita his amulet. What neither Kenai nor Nita realized was that the amulet bonded them as one. The only way for Nita to marry Atka is to go with Kenai to Hokani Falls, where he first gave her the amulet, and burn it.
Nita finds Kenai and manages to convince him to help her. But during the course of their three-day journey, their old friendship sprouts anew and flourishes. When Nita asks Kenai if he misses being human, he says yes. This causes Koda to run away up a mountain, thinking Kenai will leave him. A worried Kenai and Nita look for Koda as a snowstorm hits. They initially have no luck and Kenai keeps going, not noticing that Nita is stopping. Nita finds Koda, but an avalanche starts and as Nita screams, Kenai turns around and sees the snow heading right for them. The two are pushed down the mountain and soon get buried by the raging snow. Kenai rushes to save them and tells Koda he will never leave him. Despite the fact that both are developing feelings for one another, Kenai and Nita burn the amulet and Nita returns to her village, only to find that while the amulet kept her from marrying Atka before, now her heart will not let her marry him either.
When Kenai wakes up the next morning, his moose friends inform him that Koda has gone to Nita's village to get her back. Kenai races to the village, knowing Koda will be killed. Back at the village, the villagers spot Koda and chase him up a tree. Then, Kenai races over to the rescue grab Koda and flees. Nita hears the commotion outside and runs out of her tent. She is horrified when Atka goes after Kenai and Koda. She then chases after them to try to stop Atka. Atka chased Kenai into the mountains. Kenai hides Koda and runs off to distract the hunters. Atka finds Kenai and corners him on a cliff. They fight and Kenai is about to kill Atka when Nita runs over and yells at him to stop, but it's too late. Kenai lets Atka go and while he is distracted, Atka throws some embers in his face and kicks him off the cliff.
Atka wins and Nita cries out in dismay (because Kenai lost), pushes Atka out of the way, and climbs down the rocks to help Kenai. Kenai is alive, though he failed to defeat Atka, and tells Nita he loves her and she tells him the same. The spirits come down and Nita is able to understand the bears again. Koda tells Kenai that he asked the spirits to change him back into a man so he could be happy. Kenai tells Nita that he cannot -- as he cannot leave Koda, but she says she can. So, Nita is turned into a bear that has the same coloring as Kenai, and they get married.
The Sprits then alter the cave painting of Kenai and Nita from children into bear cubs, due to both now being bears.
At California Adventure, Kenai appeared as part of the Magic of Brother Bear theme at Redwood Creek Challenge Trail, appearing in a totem ceremony show, a wood-carved sculpture at the entrance to the area and the namesake of Kenai's Spirit Cave, where guests are able to find their animal totem by placing their hand on glowing pawprints. In the summer of 2011, the Brother Bear theming would be removed and replaced with an Up theme inspired by the Wilderness Explorers. Though Kenai and Koda no longer appear in the area, the Spirit Cave was mostly untouched with the exception of signs removing Kenai's name.
- Kenai is the third Disney protagonist to be of Native American descent (Inuit, in Kenai's case), with the first being Pocahontas, and the second being Kuzco.
- The scene where Kenai tells Rutt and Tuke "I'm not a beaver, I'm a bea–I mean, I'm not a bear, I'm a man!" after they call him a beaver after seeing him being turned into a bear by Sitka's ghost could be a reference to a scene in The Sword in the Stone where Arthur (Wart) and Merlin are turned into squirrels by Merlin's magic, and Merlin tells the Old Lady Squirrel, "I'm not a boy, I'm a squir-I mean, I'm not a squirrel, I'm a boy!" after she falls in love with his squirrel form.
- Joaquin Phoenix did not reprise his role as Kenai for the sequel due to scheduling conflicts, instead Patrick Dempsey replaced him. Both Phoenix and Dempsey share Kenai as their only voice acting role to date.
- Kenai's age is never stated in the films, though he is most likely aged 16, as 12-16 is considered the age of manhood in First Nation tribes (However, Inuits celebrate coming of age at age 11-12).
- Since Kenai chose to remain a bear permanently at the end of the first film, the only time we ever get to see his human form again in the sequel was him as a little boy in a flashback near the start of the film, when he meets Nita for the very first time.
- There was originally going to be an alternate ending of Brother Bear 2 where Kenai decides to return to his human form, but was replaced with Nita becoming a bear instead. That alternative ending has never been released for unknown reasons.