Review by Robert T. Trate
Starring: Bart the Bear, Youk the Bear, Tcheky Karyo, Jack Wallace, Andre Lacombe
Directed by: Jean-Jacques Annaud
Running time: 96 minutes
Year of release: 1988
The Bear, in 1988, would not have been a film that fell on my radar. The adventures of a bear cub lost in the wild sounds more like something you take a little kid to. A fun romp through the wilderness in the best spirit of what Walt Disney used to bring to cinemas and television. Let us get one thing clear, The Bear pulls no punches. This is probably why the film was rated PG and not G. I was ready for some heartbreak, but nothing as spectacular as The Bear was going to be. Jean-Jacques Annaud’s (Quest For Fire, The Name of the Rose) The Bear really is a unique film. The animals involved are real animals. These aren’t stolen or captured from afar shots. The title character is a young cub who’s real name is Youk. He is joined on screen by a cinematic legend, an actor who not only starred with Anthony Hopkins (twice), but Brad Pitt, John Candy, and Dan Aykroyd, as well. This was a big year for Bart the Bear, and he showed off his diversity by starring in the comedy The Great Outdoors as well.
The film, as I mentioned before, doesn’t pull any punches. The cub loses its mother in the first few minutes. This was expected, but the means by which is truly sad. Our cub is on his own in the wilderness and his adventure is set against a brilliant back drop. Youk only has to walk through his scenes for us to see the magic on screen. Yet, the film is not just pretty pictures with a cute bear cub. The cub has nightmares and even a mushroom influenced vision that is animated with stop motion photography. These small moments remind us that the cub is just that, naive and new to the world.
Enter Bart the Bear or as he is billed in this film, the Kodiak Bear. Kodiak is being hunted by two men Tom (Tcheky Karyo) and Bill (Jack Wallace). Karyo, a Turkish actor, is horribly dubbed. I only know this now because he is better known for roles in Bad Boys, The Patriot, and Golden Eye.
It is almost off-putting, but if I would have watched the film back in 1988, I would never have known. Tom wounds Kodiak in the forward shoulder and because of where this wound is, Kodiak is able to get away. It is this event that allows Youk to find the wounded and much larger bear that will eventually become his companion.
It isn’t in a montage of happy times played to a pop song, thankfully, where we see these two characters bond. In fact, it is as simple as Kodiak teaching Youk to fish. Sadly, the good times are short lived as Tom and Bill want their prize, Kodiak, and let loose the dogs to find the two bears.
It would have been easy to paint these two hunters in either a horrific or sympathetic light. They could have been real butchers out for skins or poor hunters just out to cloth their families. We are given nothing about their backstory, so naturally we side with the Bears. This is the best tool for arming the audience against them, the hunters. It also sets up an ending you never see coming. The Bear is a breathtaking and heart-warming film. It is not for children or even the very sensitive.
The law of the jungle reigns supreme here and neither Kodiak, nor hunters are entirely clean. Today, this film would be shot with Andy Serkis (Gollum from Lord of the Rings) as the Bear in a motion capture suit. A shame really, because as filmmakers rely so heavily on digital wizardry that we the audience lose something magical. Thankfully, Shout Factory has released the piece of magic back into the world with their stunning Blu-ray.
Order The Bear 25th Anniversary Collector’s Edition here on Shout! Factory.