This PG-rated, beautifully photographed 1989 film starts off so promising, feeling more like a cross between a documentary and a foreign film (it definitely does not feel American, and the director, Jean-Jacques Annaud, is French), but ultimately it becomes a victim of its own ambitions.
The lack of dialogue, realistic depiction of nature (you can smell the bear's matted fur and fetid breath, feel the buzzing flies on your skin), and stunning shots of Canada’s British Columbian mountainside eventually give way to overkill: copious amounts of what looks like red paint attempts to stand in for blood, the admittedly adorable orphaned bear cub starts to emit weird, humanlike sounds (to make us love it even more?), and a few scenes provoke chuckles where none are intended. (For example, the huge male grizzly who adopts our orphaned cub hooks up with a female, foaming-at-the-mouth hottie one night, and as they repair to the brush, grunting and groaning, the cub -- abandoned once again -- has his own party, ingesting some pretty, psilocybin mushrooms. Wacky animation ensues. It’s perhaps a bit too un-Disney.)
When our little orphan loses his mom in a rockslide in the opening scenes, the tragedy unfolds with a quiet matter-of-factness that keeps the tears at bay. The next morning, as the sun rises over distant mountains, and the cub wakes on a hillside, surveying life ahead without mama bear, you feel all the promise of what appears to be a very thoughtful film. Soon there is (drumroll) ... man, and an intense bit of “hunter vs. hunted” ensues (and more violence). There are some amazing scenes where you scratch your head and wonder, “how’d they do that?”, and a note at the beginning claiming that any “violence” done to the animals is, indeed, a trick of the camera reassures the viewer. (Ok, occasionally you wonder if the animals were really treated properly; there’s a scene where they clearly placed the little cub in a raging river and filmed him being swept away, helplessly clawing at rocks in desperation.)
There’s so much to admire about this film, that I really want to recommend it. But I just can’t do it.
Cinematographer Philippe Rousselot was nominated for an Academy Award, and he, the director, the editor, and the film itself were nominated for numerous other honors, and won a few, including the equivalent of a French Oscar.
But I still can’t recommend it.