Despite bearing the “Walt Disney Productions” brand, as well as such Disney signatures as a cutesy musical score and a folksy narration track, King of the Grizzlies was actually made by companies including Robert Lawrence Productions, the entity that supervised principal photography in Western Canada. Disney then acquired the material and applied the finishing touches. The hodgepodge nature of the movie is evident throughout its running time, because documentary-style footage of bears and other animals is intercut with narrative scenes to create the illusion of a frontier myth come to life. Yet even though some bad dubbing and a few meandering sequences create narrative hiccups, King of the Grizzlies is basically passable, as far as Disney outdoor yarns go.
Based on a novel by Ernest T. Seton, the picture tracks the life story of Mawb, a noble grizzly who overcomes hardship to become master of his realm. Early in the movie, Indian-born cattle-ranch foreman Moki (John Yesno) and his paleface employer, identified only as “The Colonel” (Chris Wiggins), encounter young Mawb and his ursine sibling, along with their mother, near the outer edges of the Colonel’s ranch. The Colonel kills mama bear and Mawb’s sibling, but only wounds Mawb. Later, Moki discovers the frightened young bear and delivers the animal to a safe place in the mountains, miles away from the ranch. As the years pass, Mawb grows stronger, surviving battles with mountain lions and wolverines, before eventually drifting back to the place where he was orphaned. This puts him back in the crosshairs of the Colonel.
Will our hairy hero survive? Can Moki intercede on his behalf once more? If you don’t know the answers to these questions, you’ve never seen a Disney movie.
Accepting that predictability is a given, King of the Grizzlies has plenty of redeeming values. The location photography is robust, with huge vistas of forests and lakes and mountains conveying the wonder of the wilderness. Furthermore, scenes of bears and other animals are wonderfully photographed, and the basic themes of bonding, compassion, and respect for nature are unassailable. Cornpone, sure, but unassailable nonetheless.
King of the Grizzlies: FUNKY