Some days, the Empire editorial team runs rich with erudite discussion on the socio-political intricacies of the Fassbinder back catalogue; others, it erupts into a heated, though no less culturally relevant, shouting match over which Care Bear was the “rainbow-y-est”, or whether or not Yogi Bear was the Uncle Tom of his species for wearing a tie and walking upright to ingratiate himself with humans. Speaking of plush, um, pleasures, and Yellowstone’s resident ursidae, this month’s Top 10 comes to you from deep within film’s furry forest, a place where man and beast convene in varying states of awe, harmony, terror and occasional animatronic weirdness. Bears-on-film is a phenomenon as old as the movies themselves — in the silent era, many would perform the roles of Shakespearean kings, and celluloid siren Greta Garbo was rumoured to have kept one as her live-in “companion”* — and yet the great beast has rarely been memorialised. Too often the convenient source of terror to dumb movie families lost in the wilderness, or pitched as lumbering monsters in Jaws knock-offs like Grizzly, we thought it high time to redress that and honour some of the stars that have elevated both the craft of cinema and the stature of this noble and prolifically lazy species.
*May not be entirely true.
10. Dewey, Semi-Pro (2008)
Will Ferrell got a taste for bear-scrapping in Anchorman, and here he takes the foolhardy challenge that he can last one round in the wrestling ring with the otherwise friendly-looking Dewey. Ferrell’s fear turns to grandstanding bravado when he figures the bear to be pretty docile, taunting the animal with name-calling and punches to the head. Then Dewey has enough, launching himself on Ferrell and running amok in the auditorium while the star hollers, “Everybody panic! If you have a small child use it as a shield, they love the tender meat!”
09. “Bears”, A Dirty Shame (2004)
“We’re husky, hairy and homosexual,” declare the large, hirsute gentlemen featured in John Waters’ comedy of sex addiction — “bears”, as they proudly out themselves to the terrified neighbours. “When we take over,” they exclaim, “it’s gonna be a bear-quake!” Like all good family units, there’s a Mamma-bear, a Hus-bear and a Cub; the clan even have their own “bear hag”, called, naturally, Goldilocks. Let’s just avoid delving into the specifics of “grism”, shall we?
08. Po, Kung Fu Panda (2008)
Pandas are traditionally depicted as the sedate denizens of the bear world, too concerned with lying around chewing bamboo or looking cute for tourists to engage in the brawls of their beefier cousins. Not so Po, who, despite being a slovenly, noodle-slurping fanboy given to daydreaming, becomes an ass-kicking martial arts hero when his village is threatened. Po’s a rare combination of fearsome skill and comedic charm; as he puts it: “I’m not a big fat panda. I’m the big fat panda!”
07. Nicolas Cage in a bear suit, The Wicker Man (2006)
You can keep your Wild At Heart, Leaving Las Vegas and Adaptation: the definite showcase for Nicolas Cage’s consummate skills as an actor resides in this very scene. Disguised in a full-body black bear costume, Cage has infiltrated the mysterious villagers and their devilish rituals to save a little girl about to be sacrificed. Which he does… by punching out a lady. While in a bear suit. Cinema at its finest, folks.
06. Teddy, A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001)
Not nearly as cute as you’d expect a robot bear in a Spielberg film to be, Stan Winston’s “super-toy” Teddy, with his rumpled fur, sad eyes and vaguely sinister expression, is more like the sentient old soul Kubrick had envisioned. Indeed, when he greets his android-boy companion in that metallic, disembodied voice, he could be a relative to HAL. Unlike 2001’s evil computer, though, Teddy’s a dedicated counterpart, standing by the abandoned David as his only real friend.
05. Grizzly Bears, Grizzly Man (2005)
Where their self-appointed champion was a verbose goofball, the Alaskan grizzlies that the late Timothy Treadwell lived with are silent, fearsome observers, lurking in the background either benignly… or biding their time for a human sandwich. Sure enough, pushed to the edge by Treadwell’s presence, one of the bears finally snaps; a sobering reminder of the power of the wild. As director-narrator Werner Herzog remarks, “the common character of the universe is not harmony, but chaos, hostility, and murder.”
04. Lotso Huggin’, Toy Story 3 (2010)
Proof of the damaging psychological effects of being discarded on the scrap heap of mass market consumerism, Lotso — who’s kind of a distant relative to ’80s fad Teddy Ruxpin — is one troubled pillow of plush. Abandoned by his former owner and sentenced to the toy purgatory that is Sunnydale Day Care, Lotso’s long-gestating bitterness causes him to orchestrate a Godfather-like grip over the other toys, complete with slavish minions, a scary right-hand baby and a pimpin’ cane that adds to his intimidating demeanour. Not that you’d know any of this upon first warm and fuzzy introduction.
03. Baloo, The Jungle Book (1967)
Slightly removed from Rudyard Kipling’s bear who teaches Mowgli the law of the jungle, Disney’s animated version is a jaunty layabout who prefers the lessons of a good show tune. And he lays down one of the more memorable in The Bare Necessities, which cheerfully illustrates the benefits of living in the wild (and, presumably, not wearing any pants). Voiced by big-band jazz musician, songwriter and comedian Phil Harris, a show-beast never possessed a better couplet than “I mean the bare necessities / that’s why a bear can rest at ease.”
02. Iorek Byrnisen, The Golden Compass (2007)
The storytelling may have disappointed, but one thing The Golden Compass got right was its rendition of Iorek Byrnisen (thunderously voiced by Ian McKellen), the exiled polar bear prince who returns to throw down for his rightful place in the kingdom. Majestic as he is, Iorek must be the only movie bear we first encounter working at a tavern to support his whiskey habit; before, that is, he’s liberated by feisty Lyra Belacqua, who helps him return to Svalbard to shake up the order of bears. The armoured polar bear melee is one perhaps the film’s highlight; it is, quite literally, jaw dropping.
01. Bart the Bear, The Bear (1988)
The bear’s bear, Bart was the Brando of his brethren, a performer as compelling as he was sought after. Over a two-decade career, the Alaskan Kodiak bear (whose mother appeared in the horror Grizzly) starred in dozens of films, including The Edge, Clan Of The Cave Bear, White Fang and Legends Of The Fall — Brad Pitt being so impressed with his co-star that he later narrated a documentary on the animal’s career. Bart’s greatest performance was his leading role in Jean-Jacques Annaud’s acclaimed The Bear, an epic wilderness adventure in which he and a young, orphaned cub go on the run from bear hunters in British Columbia. Sadly, this magnificent animal passed away in 2000 from cancer; his posthumous Oscar has yet to follow.
Originally published in Empire, March 2011