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The Bear

****
1988

‘…this is no Disney story, but a brutal, heart-wrenching tale of friendship between animals and, eventually, between man and nature…’

The 21st century has not been kind to director Jean-Jacques Annaud, whose recent work hasn’t caught the imagination of audiences or critics; back in the 1980’s, he was hot stuff, and followed up on Quest for Fire and The Name of the Rose with a quite extraordinary film, a celebration of nature called The Bear. The main character is a bear cub, but this is no Disney story, but a brutal, heart-wrenching tale of friendship between animals and, eventually, between man and nature.

Played by Youk, the Bear Cub is a jovial little fellow, interested in butterflies and rolling around on his back, but tragedy strikes early when his mum gets caught in a rockslide and he’s unable to revive her. At this point, the viewer might easily be tempted to switch off and seek medical assistance; it’s agonising to watch, even knowing that the narrative has been artfully constructed and the animals are in no danger. Still, we press on; the bear cub initiates a friendship with a grizzly that he hopes to emulate, but when the grizzly gets into a deadly spat with a couple of hunters, the big boy takes a gunshot injury that the little one helps to clean. The two bears strike up a team against the encroaching hunters, and soon the little bear cub is developing the skills which will help him survive on his own…

Although rated PG, there’s quite a few moments here that need some trigger warnings; the grizzly slashes away with deadly intent at two horses, and flings hunting dogs against rocks with venom. Animatronics and other tricks were used to gain such moments, but the effect is deliberately jarring and upsetting due to the narrative drive. Less successful are the attempts to get inside the Bear Cub’s head; his dreams of Claymation frogs are hard to justify, as are some of the solarisation techniques, and a vigorous mid-film humping doesn’t land well either.

But such quibbles aside, this is an overwhelmingly well-made and original (based on a 1915 novel) family film that doesn’t skew towards cute. The notion embodied here is that nature has evolved to have mercy, whereas humans have not, and that point is well made by the moving  plot developments in the final scenes.

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  1. Oh my goodness, I can’t believe you wrote about The Bear. This movie has, as the kids say, been living rent free in my head for thirty years. I was seven when my mom and dad took me to the movie theater to see it…thinking, I suppose, that it was Disney and for kids. I’m not sure which scene triggered it, but I completely flipped out. I remember my mom taking me out into the hallway of the movie theater, and holding me while I cried about the bear, telling me that the blood was “just ketchup” and that it was all pretend.

    We actually laugh about that every now and then, the mistake of taking a little kid to that movie. But when I saw the title, I still had that visceral reaction. I’ve never had the guts to go back and watch the rest…but maybe thirty-two years is finally enough distance 😉

    • I wondered about the fate of any young person who was taken to see this. At least you didn’t stay to see the dogs beaten on rocks. I’d not advise a return; great movie, yes, but traumatic for any sensitive person…

    • If this one has passed you by, then it’s perfect for a certain mood, with little dialogue, lovely landscapes, and an unusual story, well told.

  2. when this came out a friend of mine who’d seen it described the intersticial noises the bear cub made throughout the film as incredibly annoying, basically a young woman’s voice sounding like struggling with heavy packages. Part two of my remark is much more broad- why do we insist on creating “feel bad” movies. I often think that our world is vicious enough (take the current genocide horror in Ethiopia), and that the best films can offer us is a reprieve from the exhaustion of feeling bad through fantasy. I realize that this cuts a swath through the point of millions of films (especially those of Lars Von Trier!) but, I personally just can’t bring myself to seek creative misery.

          • Comedy is probably the hardest genre of film to make well. I’m pretty picky about them myself. Though I just rewatched Top Secret with Val Kilmer and found myself guffawing at quite a few of the gags. Mission accomplished.
            Normally I’m more of the subtle/sarcastic comedy lover – enjoying something like Wes Anderson’s Bottle Rocket over the piles of slapstick and spoof.
            But, there’s a lot to dissect in why we are or aren’t laughing. I remember being a kid with my grandfather at a screening of Fort Apache: The Bronx and being horribly embarrassed by him bursting out with laughter as the cops threw a guy off a roof. :p

            • I remember we talked about Fort Apache, and yes, there’s a strange vive that some older films give off; some members of the audience crack up at surprising thinks. I saw Blues Brothers 2000 (don’t ask) in Portland at a matinee, and the man in front of me got to his feet and applauded every time Dan Ackroyd parked the car. I think Top Secret has some great gags, and do like how a spoof can just hit you with all manner of gags. Character comedy is a different kind of art….

    • I find that the misery seeks you out, no matter what films you choose. I’ve not spent enough time with bear cubs to know what kind of noise they make, so will take that note on board. And will mail you a box of DVD movies to cheer you up, starting with Garfield 2; A Tale of Two Kitties.

        • Ah, yes, Dancer in the Dark, I saw that one with a themed party afterwards, although your comment suggests a brilliant festive decoration that wasn’t used at the time. Not the real person, obviously, a standee of her deeply frustrating character.

          • A THEMED PARTY?! please explain. And Yes now I’m trying to picture the Bjork ornament hung on high on St. Joseph’s Day. I will admit to having had something of a crush on the icelandic pixie back in the day (having been a fair Sugarcubes fan).

            Another story for your enjoyment. A few years, ago during a viewing of the wildly popular, though entirely loose and indictable Game of Thrones, a young lass was staked a burned. My girlfriend of the day was tense and moaning with upset. I remarked from my haughty perch of disconnect, “What you didn’t enjoy that?” To which, of course, she screamed at me a bit. I insisted that it was entertainment, obviously calculated and performed for our viewing pleasure. This was a remarkably unpopular opinion. But . . . there it is.

            • Edinburgh Film Festival felt that Dancer in the Dark was exactly the kind of hilarity that a gala party should be organised around; the year after, it was a genocide drama Rabbit Proof Fence that featured, with actual barbed wire displays on every dining table. Had to be seen to be believed.

              OK, one more story. Guy is watching The Thing with his girlfriend and she talks non-stop about rubbish through all the icy vistas, dogs, helicopters, all the atmosphere and music of the first ten minutes. He asks her to be quiet and she says ‘Why, nothing’s happened yet!?’.

                    • REMOVE YOUR LIES IMMEDIATELY!! Doctoring a comment from the WP4 is a heinous crime and if you don’t sort it I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger for attempting to poison and destroy my reputation as a Chaser Hater. DO NOT DELAY!

                    • What? I deleted the whole thing ages ago apart from your insult. Refresh your browser. No excuse for boozing, not wine o clock for some time.

                    • Ok I forgive you. You can delete my telling off now if you like. And of course we need more scotch people, especially the Glenfiddich clan. All mended now then. (It’s wine o clock here but I’m on Gateshead time.)

                    • Phew. Apology accepted. I will not slander you further by associating you with CC. Drink a toast to Bonnie Scotland and everything is put right!

                    • You could help plan our itinerary. Booky is sailing is yacht over and I’ll drive to to Leith and join him. We can pick you up in Gateshead and then head down to the Med to pick up Monsieur Alex. The moon has been ruled out as a destination, but otherwise, the world is our oyster! Discuss.

                    • And some seasickness medicine, you know what the Captain is like…

                  • I have to agree that Chevy has oft left me disappointed. He’s best as a sort of everyman in trying circumstances, but he’s not particularly gifted with intrinsic hilarity, at least, to my sense of comedy. But then plenty of films wasted the talents of Richard Pryor and Robin Williams as well. It’s not ALWAYS their fault.

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