Bears. Why do we love them? My guess is that bears are sort of like big dogs, who can occasionally stand up on their hind legs and sit at picnic tables. A dog that thinks he’s people is one of life’s great pleasures, and what are bears if not slightly anthropomorphized dogs? Bears also like to hibernate, which leads me to another point in bears’ favor: bears are lazy. Meat? Plants? Fish? Trash? Bears eat it all, they don’t give a shit.
And yet they’re also strong, fast, and even ferocious when they need to be, like big-headed dogs who can climb trees. Bears are basically the Gerard Butlers of the animal kingdom: mostly cuddly or hungover, but occasionally surly and heroic. Nice, until it’s time to not be nice, if you will. It’s no wonder the cinema loves them.
In honor of Cocaine Bear opening this week and also being my favorite genre of escort, I thought I would run down the 10 best movies about bears, to help you catch up on all the things cinematic bears have been doing since the Lumiere brothers invented the moving picture. And also to provide you with the proper cultural context to enhance your enjoyment of a film about CGI bear who does cocaine. It’s important to be an informed consumer.
10. (Tie) Kung Fu Panda, Ted, Yogi Bear, Black Bear, The Bad News Bears, The Various Disney Nature Movies About Bears, Golden Compass
The tenth spot on this list is a repository of all the bear movies we could think of but didn’t care that much about, running the gamut from a forgettable arthouse movie starring Christopher Abbott and Aubrey Plaza (Black Bear) to Jack Black and Seth MacFarlane’s animated bear franchises to a classic underdog sports movie that sadly isn’t about actual bears (The Bad News Bears) to an adaptation of book franchise directed by the guy from American Pie that had a bear wearing a helmet on the poster (Golden Compass). Anyone see that one? Yeah, me neither. I may not know why the bear is wearing a helmet but I will gladly fight to the death to defend his right to wear one.
Hey, remember Yogi Bear 3D?
I can’t believe I didn’t hallucinate this poster. Like, hold on, guys, someone forgot to add the other entendre. The bears were voiced by Dan Aykroyd and Justin Timberlake, by the way.
9. Grizzly 2: The Revenge (1983/2020)
Grizzly II: The Revenge isn’t good so much as it is notable, a movie featuring Laura Dern, Charlie Sheen, and George Clooney in minor roles (along with John Rhys-Davies and Louise Fletcher) originally shot in 1983 but not actually released until 2020. You can actually watch it for free on Prime Video like I did last night.
The original producer (who later did time for tax fraud) apparently walked off the project early on, leaving his co-producer, Suzanne C. Nagy, scrambling for financing. She finally got the film finished and released 37 years later — just in time for a global pandemic, which might help explain why you haven’t heard of it. We had bigger things to worry about in February 2020 than a novelty movie about a killer grizzly menacing a concert in Yellowstone.
Laura Dern, Charlie Sheen, and George Clooney are really only in the opening scene, playing “hot stupid teens who encounter a bear,” though the movie does feel like a nicely, shot, seventies-gritty B-movie about a killer bear. Jaws in the woods, I’m sure was the pitch. Sadly, you get about half of a movie and then it sort of turns into a weird montage of the musical acts playing the aforementioned Yellowstone concert. Definitely a quirky sort of slice of life, but not really a finished movie in the traditional sense.
8. The Great Outdoors (1988)
A year before the better-remembered Christmas Vacation, Dan Aykroyd and John Candy did the same sort of Chicagoan odd couple act that Chevy Chase and Randy Quaid did in The Great Outdoors, set in the woods of Wisconsin (actually shot at Bass Lake, just up the road from where I live in the San Joaquin Valley).
The film had as its centerpiece a killer bald grizzly bear (he’d had his head fur taken off with buckshot years earlier), with memorable moments that included Candy’s character attempting to eat a 96-ounce steak called “the ol’ 96er,” an old-timer who has been struck by lightning 66 times, and a family of foul-mouthed raccoons (god damn what was it with the National Lampoon guys and talking rodents?) — plus the climax with the aforementioned bear.
In retrospect, The Great Outdoors feels like a less-successful trial run for Uncle Buck, but I just recounted about three scenes from The Great Outdoors, which I’m not sure I could do for Uncle Buck. That, my friends, is the power of bears.
7. The Bear (1989)
The Bear was a French film released in the US in 1989 about a bear cub who has to dodge hunters and struggle to survive, filmed mostly using real bears. This one is up there with Benji in my personal pantheon of animal movies I loved as a kid even though they understandably made me bawl my goddamned eyes out. It’s also genuinely a great movie.
Taking a kid barely out of diapers to see a movie about an adorable bear cub whose mother dies in the first 10 minutes feels like a form of child abuse, and yet then again, probably not as abusive as making them watch Yogi Bear (or really anything on Netflix Kids or Nickelodeon today — have you seen kids programming lately? My God it’s a nightmare). I understand why we don’t make movies with real wild animals so much anymore, but strictly from a viewer’s perspective, it’s a shame. These bears were the best actors of the 80s.
6. The Edge (1997)
The Edge, which was not about the guitarist of U2, was written by David Mamet and starred Alec Baldwin as a photographer who gets stranded in the Alaskan wilderness with a billionaire he’s cuckolding, played by Anthony Hopkins. Because this was the nineties, the billionaire wasn’t the clear villain.
(Fun fact: producer Art Linson wrote a memoir featuring a scene where he argues with Alec Baldwin about shaving the beard Baldwin had grown for the role. In the movie version of the memoir, What Just Happened? the Baldwin role was played by Bruce Willis).
After surviving a plane crash, Hopkins’ character and Baldwin’s character are forced to work together in order to keep from being eaten by a killer bear, played by Bart The Bear — the same Kodiak Bear actor (Kodiaktor?) who starred in The Bear. The Edge was actually the second time Anthony Hopkins had worked with Bart (the first being Legends of The Fall), whose 2000 eulogy in the Seattle Times includes this quote from Bart’s trainer, Lynne Seus:
“Tony Hopkins was absolutely brilliant with Bart. He acknowledged and respected him like a fellow actor. He would spend hours just looking at Bart and admiring him. He did so many of his own scenes with Bart.”
The Edge is one of those sexy thrillers that don’t really get made anymore, a very movie kind of movie, and yet if I had the choice between watching that again and watching a behind-the-scenes look at Sir Anthony Hopkins pensively admiring Bart’s lustrous flanks, I’d have to go with the latter. Again, such is the power of bears.
5. Paddington (2014)
Both of the Paddington movies are much better than they have any right to be, especially when you remember the Yogi Bear movie. That being said, the first one is the clear inferior of the two, leaning far more heavily on the CG-bear-gets-into-hijinks aspect of the Paddington character. Still, it was shockingly not-terrible, especially given that it had lost its original voice actor, Colin Firth, which sort of made it sound like it was setting up to be a debacle. What actor doesn’t want to cash a big check for a couple days of voice work? It ended up being surprisingly decent, and more importantly, set up Paddington 2.
4. Brigsby Bear (2017)
Yes, I’m really stretching the “movies about bears” premise in order to include Brigsby Bear, a goofy sci-fi dramedy starring Kyle Mooney as a kid who was raised in a fallout bunker by his crazy father, played by Mark Hamill. When he’s rescued, he discovers that he’s the only one in the world who ever saw “Brigsby Bear,” his favorite television show which was actually a fake television show his father had made just for him. With no one to discuss the show with, he vows to continue the series with his new family, in what turns out to be a sort of love letter to the process of making goofy videos with your friends. I really hate fake sweet movies, but Brigsby Bear feels to me entirely genuine.
I really loved this movie and not nearly enough people saw it. Incidentally, it, like Cocaine Bear, was also produced by Lord and Miller.
3. The Revenant (2015)
The Revenant is basically arthouse Jackass, and I appreciate that. If you’ll remember, back in the teens all the movie talk was about Leo DiCaprio and when was he finally going to win that Oscar (we saved all the talk about him only dating women under 25 for later). The Revenant finally clinched it for him, and I’ve always loved the idea that Leonardo DiCaprio could only prove himself worthy of acting’s highest honor by eating raw bison heart and sleeping in an animal carcass. Actors rock.
Anyway, The Revenant is one of those rare movies that’s kind of a joke, but also still pretty great. Tom Hardy rarely makes words, but hardly needs to. He plays nemesis to Leonardo DiCaprio’s character, Hugh Glass (whose cousin, Hugh Jass, is a regular at Moe’s Tavern), and yet, the big bear kind of steals the show. The bear scene also spawned possibly the all-time greatest Drudge Report headline, DICAPRIO RAPED BY BEAR IN FOX MOVIE. You can see why he’d use all the sirens for that one.
2. Paddington 2 (2018)
It’s basically become a Twitter meme to crow about how great Paddington 2 is, but acknowledging that it’s kind of hack to say so, Paddington 2 is actually really great. It does, admittedly, have a few stray scenes featuring CGI bear hijinks that aren’t so great, but mostly Paddington is an avatar for Britishness as the contemporary British would like to imagine it.
It’s hard to do something like that while not coming off bellicose and horrendously nationalistic, but Britishness, as Paddington imagines it, is more about kindness, restraint, respect for other cultures, and enjoying proudly dowdy things like marmalade, tweed clothes, and old-timey trains. I don’t really believe that these are 100% genuine reflections of Britishness, but it seems nice enough as an aspirational sentiment. I want to believe, and it even makes me wish Americans could pull off something like this (I’m fairly certain we couldn’t). It’s hard to think of a greater artistic feat than making me briefly jealous of the British.
Hugh Grant deserved an Oscar nomination for this. “Actors playing obnoxious actors” is one of my favorite genres of acting.
1. Grizzly Man (2005)
Grizzly Man was the first Werner Herzog movie I ever saw and the phrase “you must never listen to this” has been stubbornly camped out in my skull ever since. It’s not only a cultural touchstone for every documentarian trying to profile a kooky but lovable subject (Paul T. Goldman creator Jason Woliner mentioned Grizzly Man alongside American Movie as one of his main inspirations), it’s also a haunting cautionary tale about identifying too closely with wild beasts just because they’re cute, to the point that you don’t see them for what they are. Probably only Werner Herzog could’ve successfully combined those two things. It’s also the perfect movie for this list as it’s both a really good movie and is specifically about bears. And not just tangentially either, we’re talking like wall to wall bears. Bear city, this movie.
‘Cocaine Bear’ opens in theaters everywhere February 24. Vince Mancini is on Twitter. More reviews here.