Home Video Hovel: The Bear, by Sarah Brinks
I remember two things from seeing The Bear as a little kid – it was scary, and the baby bear ate some mushrooms and had a psychedelic trip. Both things are true. I think there must be a group of people around my age who were traumatized as kids when The Bear was released on home video. It seemed like a natural choice for parents browsing the video store – “oh, look, a cute bear!” The thing of it is, there is a lot of violence in the film both by the humans and the bears. It was pretty bloody for a kids movie, even in the 1980s.
It doesn’t even start well – a baby bear cub whose mother dies finds an adult male bear to look after him while two human hunters search for his new protector to kill and keep as a trophy. The Bear is just one of many similar films made in the 80s and 90s. Similar to The Adventures of Milo & Otis, the Benji films, and Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey, this film is about real animals set in a fictional story. Animal films have evolved over time. Now the fashionable trend is feature length nature documentaries such as Disney’s Bears, Oceans, and Chimpanzees. The forced narrative in The Bear is very obvious, but it is also a relatable story of an orphan finding its way in a difficult world.
The film is obviously manipulative. Youk, the bear cub, is so adorable and the film takes full advantage of that. He falls down hills, he plays with frogs, and sleeps like a baby angel. Ultimately the film is most sympathetic to the bears but it doesn’t shy away from the ferocity of their nature. It does build a great deal of sympathy for baby Youk and the make-shift family he builds with Bart (his adopted bear dad). The bears also seem to have intuition and emotions beyond a real animal’s ability. Bart, at the end, seems to grasp the concepts of mercy and repentance. He corners one of the hunters and lets him go because the hunter asks to live. The hunter then learns mercy from the bear and stops hunting him. As these things often go.
There are some strange elements to the story telling that now feel very dated and out of place. There are a couple times when Youk is sleeping, that the film cuts to claymation dream sequences. They are always weird and often kind of scary (five-year-old me didn’t like scary claymation frogs). There is also an almost graphic bear-sex scene in the film. Bart comes across a female bear and they mate. But you see it in the background of a shot of Youk looking annoyed and there are even bear sex noises. It just feels so out of place in the film and somehow exploitative of the bears.
I cannot discuss this film without a warning to animal lovers to be very cautious if you want to watch this film. The violence done to and by animals is not pretty. Not only is the mother bear killed in the beginning but Bart is shot in the shoulder and we see the hunters cleaning bear skins. Bart also does some gnarly damage to the hunters dogs, he kills a deer, and disembowels a horse. You can’t really blame the bears; they are natural predators and carnivores, after all. But the violence against the animals and the blood and guts can be hard to take sometimes. Anyone who has seen Grizzly Man can’t help but keep their true strength and predatory nature in the back of their mind.
The film is beautifully restored on Blu-ray. The mountainous setting is incredibly beautiful and makes a powerful back drop to the film. The image is sharp, making it possible to see the bugs flying around the bears and individual hairs on their bodies. The 25th anniversary collector’s edition Blu-ray also comes with a “making of” special feature. You learn all about the different bear cubs they used, how they trained them, and how careful they were with them. You also see them working with the adult bears and the challenges they faced.
I find it difficult to revisit films I remember seeing as a kid. They often do not live up to my memory. The Bear was not a film I fondly remembered but watching it as a adult I got a lot more out of it. It manipulative, violent, and often difficult to watch. But it is beautifully made, Youk the baby bear is enjoyable to watch, and the story is complete.