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URSA MAJOR MOTION PICTURES – Bears on Film

This is a guest essay from David Turpin. Read his previous Spooool.ie contributions here.

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Bears are strange beasts, on screen and in stories as much as in life.  As children, we thrill to stories of ferocious man-eating bears, even as we hold on to our teddy bears for comfort.  Bears are equally versatile on film, embodying everything from nature’s relentless fury – as in the absurd David Mamet-scripted The Edge (1997) – to the summit of bumbling conviviality, as in The Muppet Show’s Fozzie Bear.  Disney has give us more than its fair share of bears, from the friendly (2003’s Brother Bear) to the ferocious (1981’s The Fox and the Hound) – in 2012’s Brave, it even offered both.  With a charming new Paddington film currently in cinemas, now seems a good time to reflect on some of the greatest bears cinema has given us.  (Please note that this list excludes panda bears, who have their own rich cinematic tradition, both as kung fu practitioners and otherwise).

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Baloo in The Jungle Book (1967)

01 - Baloo

Justifiably the most celebrated of cinema’s many animated bears, Baloo (as voiced by Phil Harris) epitomises many of the qualities we most prize in cinematic bears.  Laid back to a fault, but also good-hearted and well-meaning, Baloo has an infectious sense of fun and also looks very fetching in a grass skirt.  His burgeoning friendship with the sophisticated Bagheera (sublimely voiced by Sebastian Cabot) makes for one of cinema’s most endearing odd couples.  After Baloo emerged as a popular favourite from The Jungle Book’s vivid ensemble, Disney animators all but recycled him, this time in the form of a brown bear, as Little John in 1973’s awkwardly conceived Robin Hood.

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Ben in The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams (1974)

02 - Grizzly Adams

Loosely based on the life of 19th-century California mountain man James “Grizzly” Adams, The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams deals with a wrongly accused fugitive who flees to the mountains where he befriends an orphaned bear cub he names Ben (after Benjamin Franklin).  The runaway popularity of the independently produced film led to a successful TV series, the last episode of which aired in 1982.  Lead actor Dan Haggerty is a fairly textbook example of a different kind of bear, but the show is routinely stolen by his charismatic co-star Bozo, an imposing grizzly bear who is fascinating to watch, even in the most hackneyed storylines.  The Grizzly Adams theme song, “Maybe”, sung by Thom Pace, is also a classic.  (Aficionados of sentimental television bears might also want to seek out Gentle Ben, a boy-and-his-black-bear yarn that aired on US TV from 1967 to 1969).

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Wild bears in Grizzly Man (2005)

03 - Grizzly Man

Werner Herzog’s justly celebrated documentary tells the story of activists Timothy Treadwell and Amie Huguenard, who were killed in 2003 while living among Alaskan grizzly bears.  As well as a fascinating testament to Treadwell’s work, in particular, Grizzly Man is an important salutary lesson in the folly of any human being who believes him or herself to have a privileged communion with the animal kingdom.  Not unlike Into the Wild, Sean Penn’s 2007 dramatisation of the life and death of Christopher McCandless, Grizzly Man can be read as both a celebration of its subject’s bravery and an indictment of his hubris.  Treadwell’s real story also fits neatly with the concerns memorably established in Herzog’s dramatic collaborations with Klaus Kinski, Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972) and Fitzcarraldo (1982).  Throughout the film, the real life grizzly bears emerge as a powerful symbol for the implacability of nature.

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Bart and Youk in The Bear (1988)

04 - The Bear

Jean-Jacques Annaud’s extraordinary adventure film expands on the non-verbal filmmaking techniques of Quest for Fire (1981), doing away with human leads altogether.  The central roles are instead taken by screen veteran Bart the Bear (whose performing career lasted 18 years of his 23-year lifespan) and Youk, an immensely appealing cub who made his debut in The Bear and never appeared onscreen again.  The story of an alliance between a mature bear and an orphaned cub, The Bear has an elemental quality that struck a chord with audiences worldwide, and earned Annaud a César award for Best Director.  Like Quest for Fire, it deserves a more prominent place in cinema history.  Incidentally, the long-circulating rumour that the film’s soundtrack features human voices making anthropomorphised “animal noises” is inaccurate.  The remarkably expressive vocalisations were dubbed in post-production, but are all authentic bear sounds.

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Paddington in Paddington (1975) and Paddington (2014)

05 - Paddington

The appealing mixture of 2D cut-outs and 3D puppetry in FilmFair’s Paddington shorts for the BBC made an indelible impression on a generation of children.  Aficionados of the TV Paddington and of Michael Bond’s original books may be worried by the splashiness of this year’s big screen adaptation, which expands at length on Paddington’s background, and adds an avalanche of knockabout action to boot.  The good news is that the new Paddington is charming on its own terms, with a beautifully animated protagonist and very game live-action support from Sally Hawkins and Nicole Kidman.  At times closer in spirit to Peter Cook than Michael Bond, the new film tempers its good-natured silliness with a pleasingly sincere message on the social value of immigration.  Colin Firth’s departure mid-production was a blessing in disguise as well – his replacement, Ben Whishaw, is note perfect as Paddington’s voice.

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David Turpin is a screenwriter and occasional academic, and a musician under the name The Late David Turpin.  His web-site is www.thelatedavidturpin.com. Read his previous Spooool.ie contributions here.