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.