It’s easy to see why The Bear was an international hit that pulled in more than $30 million worldwide. The story of an orphaned bear cub named Youk, it’s a charmer for children, but also suspenseful and realistic enough to appeal to adults. There’s certainly no language barrier to overcome. Except for a few grunted exchanges between the film’s bad guys, a group of grungy hunters, The Bear tells its story in silence. And sweet, fuzzy Youk’s perilous but exhilarating journeys are the stuff of universal sagas: death, sex, coming of age, and eating big chunks of honeycomb with bare paws.
Youk’s mother dies in the movie’s opening moments, crushed in a rock slide. The little brown bear lumbers along alone until he’s befriended by a huge black grizzly. They’re chased by the hunters — in the film’s most upsetting scene the grizzly is shot in the shoulder — but they spend much of the time just being bears: eating, sleeping, climbing, nuzzling.
Director Jean-Jacques Annaud relies on a fair amount of anthropomorphism, with many close-ups of Youk’s big, sad eyes and amplified snuffling sounds that make you think of a lovable kid with a perpetually runny nose. But The Bear is a nature movie for our era. Understanding that the genial corniness of Lassie or My Friend Flicka wouldn’t work with a generation weaned on Star Wars, the filmmakers keep sentimentality to a minimum and quicken the pace of what might have been a leisurely tale.
When the movie first came out, lots of reviewers commented that children might have problems with a scene in which the grizzly bear has a one-night stand with an acquaintance, but to be honest with you, the scene is so brief I missed it the first time around, and had to ask my 8-year-old where it was in the movie. She seemed more shocked by Dad’s dumbness than by the scene itself, which is very discreet.
The Bear loses some of its effectiveness on the small screen. Too often, the cub is a tiny dot in the vast wilderness. In night scenes, it’s sometimes difficult to locate little Youk at all. But this doesn’t detract very much from the film’s charm or suspense, and at a crisply edited 92 minutes, The Bear is brief enough to hold the attention of the most restless child — or grown-up.