Bears aren’t always considered the most prolific of movie animals, and when they actually do make an appearance, it is usually to serve either one of two functions: to be a fearsome, bloodthirsty beast or to be a cuddly, adorable and eminently huggable companion.
In Brave, last week’s big release, we got to see (MILD SPOILER) that ursine binary epitomized when Princess Merida is forced to grapple with a magical force that turns humans into benevolent – and adorable – black bears before they digress to their savage, violent instincts. This week, in Seth MacFarlane’s debut Ted, we are likely to see a truly vulgar twist on these tropes in its smoking, drinking, verbally hostile plush-stuffed protagonist.
With two big movies in as many weeks prominently featuring bears, I figured it would be fun to mull over my very favorite representations of the animal in the movies. I tried to keep my list as diverse as possible – you’ll see bears young and old, animated and live-action, wild and Teddy – but I will be counting on you, dear readers, to inform me of my omissions.
Film Misery’s 7 Essential Movie Bears
Considering it’s a movie that is all about bears and, um, their complicated relationship to deceased wildlife advocate Timothy Treadwell, it comes as a thoroughly delightful surprise that the scene-stealer of this movie is neither Treadwell himself, nor the bear who ate him, nor the film’s notoriously protrusive director Werner Herzog. The real star of Grizzly Man is, in fact, an adorable little red fox named Ghost who steals a hat from the camp, prompting Treadwell (quite irritably) to chase after, scolding the pup as if he were a child.
This deeply amusing – and deeply revelatory – moment marks one of the most incredible moments of spontaneity I’ve ever seen in a nonfiction film. For this deed alone, Grizzly Man’s Ghost is the Official “Film Misery Honorary Movie Bear.”
7) “Bear,” Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan
The black bear in Sascha Baron-Cohen’s satirical mockumentary does not get much screen time, but he manages to own one of the movie’s most truly hilarious moments. Intended to protect the ice cream truck Borat uses to traverse America, the bear spends much of his time in the back. During an untimely trip to a playground, that playful ice cream music blaring overhead, a small legion of children make a mad dash toward the truck. Expecting a refreshing summer treat, they are instead greeted with the bear’s terrifying howl. While more than one of those poor tykes surely soiled a perfectly decent pair of pants for the sake of that admittedly cruel joke, there is no denying how funny that joke really is.
If the villain of this wonderful send-off to Pixar’s flagship franchise seems ranked a bit low, it probably has something to do with how similarly his back-story as an abandoned toy compares to Jessie’s own journey in Toy Story 2. But the curator of the Sunnyside Day Care Center’s toy collection warrants a mention for Ned Beatty’s vocal performance alone, which hints simultaneously at benevolence and unhinged menace. Lotso deserves a shout-out for the way he exits the film, pinned against the grill of a city dump truck, trapped there indefinitely. If you actually think about it, that’s an awfully dark and dismal fate for any teddy bear (in a kids‘ movie) to be subjected to.
The Jungle Book, the last feature produced under the charge of Walt Disney himself, is a film I’ve not revisited since my childhood. But if any one character from this Rudyard Kipling adaptation lingers in my head today, then surely it is the lovable, lumbering sloth-bear that taught us the “Bear Necessities” of life. It’s not simply that the character Baloo lingers; the bass gentility of his voice – furnished by the inimitable Phil Harris – is just as timeless and memorable a sound to the cinephile’s ears as Katherine Hepburn’s haughty East-Coast inflections or the imposing breath of Darth Vader. No kidding.
Fozzie was never really my favorite Muppet, though that fact speaks more to my love for Jim Henson’s other creations than it does to any disdain I might have for Kermit’s Studebaker-driving best friend. An aspiring stand-up comedian – and not a particularly good one at that – Fozzie has never been one to back down from his commitment to a bad joke or a hostile crowd. For Fozzie, “Wakka-Wakka” is more than a cheap little catch-phrase; it’s a message to all of us, urging that we never allow our passions and talents to be cast aside, not even if they are valued by absolutely nobody else except ourselves.
Incidentally, my parents can therefore blame Fozzie for my continued desire to be a film writer.
As a sidekick to a forlorn little robot boy hell-bent on returning to his mother, Teddy is indispensable. In a matter not inconsistent with his Pinnochio doppelganger Jiminy Cricket, he serves as the conscience to the robot boy David, occasionally giving him some much-needed common-sense advice and serving as an invaluable companion in a world that rejects him. Unlike Jiminy Cricket, though, there remains one deeply unsettling truth about Teddy: he is a conscience without a soul, programmed without a system of logic or sense of empathy that could ever effectively reason David out of his futile quest. This truth, coupled with David’s own pre-programmed emotional limitations, makes the fruits of his travails all the more bittersweet.
Really, is there any bear in movie history that is more innately loveable than Winnie the Pooh? I honestly cannot think of a good reason why anybody could ever not love him. Pooh is a bear of quite simple, quite satiable desires. All he really wants in life is good company, a good home and – of course – honey. He doesn’t exactly step over people to get what he wants; he doesn’t connive, he doesn’t steal, and he doesn’t bully. He only knows how to love. Sure, he irritates Rabbit from time to time, but I imagine that grouchy old queen’s life would be far too boring without Pooh-bear. If you don’t love that willy, nilly, silly ol’ bear… you are probably dead inside.
Like The Jungle Book, this obscure 1988 movie from French director Jean-Jacques Annaud – one that tells the story of an orphaned bear cub who befriends a curmudgeonly male grizzly – is one I have not seen since I was a very small child. But its two spectacularly well-trained stars, Bart and Youk, earn the top spot on this list by sole virtue of nostalgia. I acknowledge my reliance on childhood nostalgia may be flimsy, but in this case I don’t particularly care. I do not believe any other movie I saw as a child – not The Land Before Time, not Milo and Otis, not even that bordering-on-Capraesque weepie Homeward Bound – managed to make me bawl as extensively (or as loudly) as the scene where Youk licks Bart’s gunshot wound clean, and the two become inseparable.
For all I know, The Bear is in fact not nearly as powerful as I remember, but those two bears are solely responsible for taking my six-year-old heart and utterly pulverizing it. They are the kind of bears other movie bears aspire to be.