Wednesday, May 4, 2016

The Bears and I (1974)

          One of the better live-action dramas made by Walt Disney Productions in the ’70s, The Bears and I presents the familiar trope of a man who leaves civilization to find solace in nature, then builds emotional bonds with wild animals until he must resolve the inherent problem of living in two worlds at once. Although The Bears and I is a simplistic  homily compared to the best Disney movie of this type— the extraordinary Never Cry Wolf (1983)—it is nonetheless a humanistic film with a credible approach to ecology and race. The movie has some of the usual kid-cinema extremes, notably an excess of cute-animal antics, and leading man Patrick Wayne is hopelessly bland. However, young viewers could do much worse than exposure to a story about treating animals, land, and people with respect.
          The film’s source material is a nonfiction book by Robert Franklin Leslie, who ventured into the woods of British Columbia during the 1930s to work as a trapper, inadvertently becoming the guardian of three cubs after their mother died. In the modernized Disney version, Bob (Wayne) is a Vietnam vet who travels into the wilderness near the Canadian Rockies to find Chief Peter A-Tas-Ka-Nay (Chief Dan George). Bob served with Peter’s son, who died in combat, so Bob returns the son’s personal effects and seeks permission to camp near the small Indian settlement that Peter oversees. Hostile toward all whites, Peter and his tribesmen accept Bob’s money but not his companionship, and the friction increases once Bob adopts the cubs. Peter says his people are a “bear tribe,” so they view the domestication of the bears as sacreligious. Nonetheless, Bob teaches the bears basic survival skills, such as foraging for insects and hiding in trees when stalked by predators. This being a Disney picture, several subplots impact the action, notably the impending transformation of the Indian settlement into the hub of a national park and the one-dimensional villainy of Sam Eagle Speaker (Valentin de Vargas), a drunken troublemaker.
          Presented with dense narration during animal scenes, The Bears and I goes down smoothly. Shot at gorgeous outdoor locations, the picture comes complete with a John Denver theme song {“Sweet Surrender”), so it meshes well with the back-t0-nature ethos of the early ’70s. Is it cutesy and manipulative? Of course. But there’s a bittersweet emotional peak buried inside the movie’s tidy third act, ensuring that the picture ultimately endorses a realistic view of how people and wild animals can safely interact.

The Bears and I: GROOVY

1 comment:

Peter L. Winkler said...

Screenwriter John Whedon is Joss Whedon's granddaddy.