MOVIE: ***1/2 (out of 5)
BLU-RAY EXPERIENCE: ** (out of 5)
Bart the Bear as THE KODIAK BEAR
Youk the Bear as THE BEAR CUB
Tchéky Karyo as TOM
Jack Wallace as BILL
André Lacombe as LE CHASSEUR AUX CHIENS
Studio: Shout Factory
Directed by: Jean-Jacques Annaud
BY KEVIN CARR
I remember when “The Bear” came out 25 years ago, but I was too young to fully appreciate the artistry involved in making the movie. While I thoroughly enjoyed Jean-Jacques Annaud’s adaptation of Umberto Eco’s “The Name of the Rose,” my teenage viewing habits were more aligned with Hollywood blockbusters than a more challenging endeavor like this.
Now, 25 years older and hopefully 25 years wiser, with a wealth of diverse films in my viewing stable over the years, I have a much greater appreciation for a film like “The Bear.”
The story is fairly simple, though the execution is not. “The Bear” follows an orphaned bear cub who forms an unlikely friendship with a wild male grizzly. Together, they face the challenges of being stalked by hunters and assaulted by the natural world.
“The Bear” is both a feat of minimalist filmmaking and meticulous planning. The majority of the film is presented without dialogue, and that only changes when the hunters show up and have a few lines for each other. The rest of the movie feels more like a nature documentary sans David Attenborough’s expected narration. It’s a silent film of sorts, showing the bears’ relationships through action and scenery rather than spoken word.
Another departure from a mainstream film is the absence of a score through much of the film. This lends to the natural feel of the story and augments its authentic nature documentary tone. However, this should not lead anyone to believe that this film is not planned and scripted. Based on the 1916 novel “The Grizzly King,” the story is deliberate and actually achieves what nature usually doesn’t: male grizzlies tend to devour lone bear cubs rather than take them under their wings.
“The Bear” is a gorgeous film with its heart in the right place. It doesn’t shy away from more adult themes, like death in nature, sexual activity among wild animals and even a scene featuring the cub tripping out after eating the wrong mushrooms in the forest. This is what makes the film unique, by not sanitizing the content for the PG audience of 1988. Gotta love the French for that.
For as natural-feeling as this movie is, there are unfortunately several moments that break the story out of this cocoon. A couple times, we see the cub’s dream sequences, which feature rustic stop-motion puppetry. These sequences did not bother me as much as some critics over the years, but as a story device, they seem cheap against the lush landscape otherwise presented in the film.
My biggest stumbling block was with the sometimes corny sound effects from the animals. Because this was shot with a cast of mostly wild animals, the entire soundtrack had to be added in post production. There are some authentic sounds from the animals mixed in quite well. However, there are other moments – particularly with the cub struggling in his environment – where it feels ADR’d with a human voice attempting to emote through sound effects. (Examples of this include the bear’s human-like panting and some of its cries that are just too deliberate to feel like a real animal.)
Still, “The Bear” is a unique and exhilarating film that is worth seeing, particularly now in its 25th Anniversary Blu-ray release.
The bonus features on the Blu-ray menu include the original theatrical trailer as well as the 52-minute “The Making of The Bear.” This behind-the-scenes documentary is a little more free-form than most, comprising mostly candid footage of the production (including some uncomfortable animal training moments which includes a shocking amount of poking animals with sticks to get a desired response). There are some interviews that string together the story – in French of course so the entire piece has an overlaid English translation narrator – but it’s not your traditional marketing reel you see on these discs.