Where the Wild Things Are
What is it about bears? Bear movies are second only to monkey movies in their weirdly fascinating appeal. In The Edge, Bart the Bear steals the show from Alex Baldwin… maybe that is explanation enough of bear charm. And in the wonderful, and aptly named, The Bear, the big beasts grab all the leading roles. (Hey, and on TV’s B.J. and the Bear, “Bear” was an ape — two-for-one animal allure.)
Now, from the producer of TV’s Grizzly Adams and the writer/director of Swiss Family Robinson, comes Grizzly Falls, an old-fashioned family film in a similar style. There’s lots of bears in this one, and kids will be thrilled with the adventure and the intimate focus on the majestic animals.
Elderly Harry Bankston is camping with his grade-school grandchildren in the Rocky Mountains when noises in the dark woods startle the young’uns. Richard Harris, who was mauled by a bear and left for dead in 1971’s Man in the Wilderness, plays old Harry, but he has a nicer tale to tell his grandkids over the campfire, about how he “earned [his] Ph.D. in bearology” when he himself was a child.
In 1913, young Harry (played as a child by fresh-faced Daniel Clark, who’s terribly appealing) loses his mother to consumption and is sent away to boarding school. Dad — Tyrone Bankston (the delicious Bryan Brown) — is away in the Orient, and despite his long absences, Harry idolizes his explorer and archeologist father. When Tyrone finally returns to Chicago, he spirits Harry away out West, where he will embark upon his “greatest adventure” — he wants to catch a live grizzly bear, a feat that’s never been accomplished before. In an attempt at some serious father/son male bonding, he appoints Harry the expedition’s diarist and “apprentice adventurer.”
Things don’t go quite according to plan, however: a disastrous hunt only angers the giant grizzly (Ali Oop the Bear) Tyrone’s band encounters, and when they assume she’s dead, they take her two cubs (Betty and Barney the Bears) so they won’t die. But Mama’s alive, and when she roars into their camp one night looking to retrieve her babies — and finds them locked in a cage — she snatches Harry instead, who happened to be near the cage feeding the cubs at the time.
The plot’s a little hokey, sure. Would a bear steal a human child as ransom or as a replacement for her own offspring? Probably not. But Grizzly Falls is mostly entertaining hokum. The middle section of the film gets bogged down just a bit, as Tyrone and his half-Scot/half-Native American tracker friend, Joshua (Tom Jackson, who’s world famous in Canada, apparently), scour the woods for Harry, and Harry learns to be comfortable with the bear and survive in the wilderness. But the beautiful photography of the gorgeous Alberta mountain vistas will keep parents’ interest from straying too far while their kids are enthralled by Harry’s resorting to eating grubs, learning to fish like a bear, and being generally clever.
Grizzly Falls is probably too intense for very young children — there are violent fisticuffs among the humans, and a bear attacks one of the hunters after he sics his dogs on it — but older kids should enjoy. Kids love stories about other kids learning to conquer their fears, and they’ll share Harry’s sense of empowerment when he eventually tames the bear. There are also undercurrents of themes that kids shouldn’t have to deal with but unfortunately do, like the loss of a parent and learning to see parents not as larger than life — as Harry sees Tyrone — but as real people.
Grizzly Falls reminded me of nothing so much of the television series The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, the ones with the little Indy. Like Young Indy, Grizzly Falls is a little edification and a little entertainment wrapped up in an adventuresome bow.