As a child, Judge Joel Pearce dreamed of becoming a mighty penguin (the polar bear of the South Pole).
"We'll have to be patient with him, he's totally wild." -Eskimo
A watercolor painting come to life, The Boy Who Wanted to be a Bear is a strange mixture of aboriginal folk legend and cutesy family film. It doesn't always work, but it does always look nice. For fans of the film, this DVD is a delightful package aimed at both children and adults.
Facts of the Case
An Inuit hunter and his wife have a son, at the same time that a nearby polar bear gives birth to a stillborn cub. Crushed, the polar bears steal the human son for their own, and she raises him as a bear. When his father finally catches up and takes him back, the boy believes that the only way to prove that he is a bear is to pay a visit to the mountain spirit.
Although I found The Boy Who Wanted to be a Bear generally disappointing, a few things were done well. Animation heads the list, a fascinating mix of watercolored cel animation and CGI. The camera sweeps across the landscape, circling objects that look like watercolor paintings. Shots from the perspectives of the characters do a fine job of pulling the audience into the moment. The characters are unique and attractive, rendered in bold, simple brush strokes to capture their expressions and emotions.
The story feels very much like an Inuit legend. It's not linear like North American children's entertainment, but instead gives time to each of the creatures, lending an ear to each of the characters and their feelings. None of the characters are given names, making the vast expanse of the Arctic feel more like a small community. The human family takes a trip into town at one point, a powerful scene that thoughtfully examines the changes in the lifestyle of these aboriginal people.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Unfortunately, that doesn't make up for the serious problems and frustrations I had while watching the film. The voices, whether you choose the English or French language track, are obnoxious. The Boy Who Wanted to be a Bear would have worked far better with more silence, yet there is constant, meaningless chatter that gets tiring quickly. The humans and animals don't understand each other, but they both speak the same language during the same scenes, which is confusing. The English voices are particularly lackluster, which is a problem on a disc targeting children too young to follow subtitles.
Considering that the film only runs 75 minutes long, you'd expect the story to feel compressed and concise. In reality, it feels almost as though the producers were trying to stretch a 45-minute idea into a full feature. There is a lot of repetition in the dialogue and plot, and many of the scenes drag on endlessly, punctuated by annoying voice work. I can only enjoy looking at pretty scenery for so long.
I appreciate the film's willingness to broach issues that are often ignored in family films, such as showing the stillborn cub. But the hunting of the polar bears and the death of some animals at the hands of humans will surprise many North American parents. The deaths are occasionally graphic, and there are a few scenes of non-sexual nudity. Many of the most cautious parents who would be drawn to The Boy Who Wanted to be a Bear because of its ecological message will be surprised by some of this content targeted at their very young children.
The DVD has an attractive video transfer, windowboxed to 1.66:1 and looking completely organic. Any digital compression problems would have really popped out here, but thankfully it's not an issue. The sound transfer is also solid, with two stereo tracks that do a good job of mixing the dialogue, ambient noise and music. I really liked the music in the film, which enhances the mood but never draws attention to itself.
The extras are another story. The back of the case has a long list of extras, but none of them impress. The polar bear trivia game has five basic questions. "Arctic Viewpoint" is a single screen statement about the situation in the arctic. Equally silly are the character descriptions and the 30 seconds of movie lobby cards. The art gallery is only slightly better, featuring several attractive stills from the film. The interviews with the English voice cast are a bit more substantial (with a spoiler warning!). They're a bit self-congratulatory, but it's interesting to hear their thoughts on the production.
It's great to see aboriginal stories available to our children. Few of our stories are as pure and simple as these. If we do tell these stories, though, we need to be willing to present them as is. The comic-relief raven character is a Western invention, and the banter isn't in keeping with the storytelling. Although the transfer is solid, this doesn't really deserve to be considered as a collector's edition. If you want to give The Boy Who Wanted to be a Bear a try, either rent it or buy the cheaper barebones edition.
Despite a valiant attempt, this film is not a bear.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Wea/Elektra Entertainment
• Art Gallery
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