There’s something primal that resonates in this film for all of us.
—Veronica Taylor, “Interviews with the U.S. Cast”
The scene in The Boy Who Wanted to Be a Bear when Mother Bear (Veronica Taylor; voice actors are listed here for the English language version of the film) gives birth to a stillborn cub while Father Bear (Dan Green) waits outside their cave is wrenching. Mother Bear shakes her lifeless baby ever so slightly, causing his tiny head to move. Realizing there’s no hope, she climbs out of the cave and buries her cub, before breaking down into a fit of uncontrollable anguish. The film, you now know, is not only a fable for kids, but an often brutal look at the parallels between the human and animal worlds.
Hoping to soothe his wife, Father Bear travels to a nearby hunter’s hut and steals a newborn human baby resting inside. The child becomes a source of all-consuming joy for Mother Bear, and she names him “Little Bear” (Rena Taylor). She teaches him to swim, fish, and avoid all things human, including the spear of the hunter who has vowed he will track Father and Mother Bear to “the ends of the Earth” to rescue his son, and cure his own wife’s sorrow.
The Boy Who Wanted to Be a Bear offers several complicated similarities between the families: not only does Mother Bear’s grief match and Mother Eskimo’s (Carol Jacobanis), but all live in fear of the other. When Father Bear enters the Eskimo family’s hut during the kidnapping, he finds spears and picks on the walls and a baby blanket made from bearskin. It doesn’t excuse his actions, but the threat to the bears affords him a certain amount of compassion.
The film also extends compassion to the hunter, who becomes obsessed with finding Little Bear, neglecting his wife and forgoing his own happiness in the process. We don’t like that the hunter must kill bears in order to have warm blankets and feel sorry for the bears who live in fear. “Nothing is worse than man,” Mother Bear teaches her new child. But when we see the bears tear apart a cute little seal for food, the Eskimos’ brutality is placed in a fresh light. The blunt lesson is that in the wild, regardless of species, survival means killing.
The question of nature versus nurture is also common to both families. Little Bear lives with the bears for so long that he acts and reacts just like them. He knows no other way, so when Father Eskimo finally rescues him from what he sees as Mother Bear’s menacing grip, he’s unable to settle into life as a human boy. He growls, he fights, and he fears the hunter with his bearskin blankets just as Father Bear did. When pressed to name himself, bear or human, Little Bear chooses to identify as a bear. He must beat the elements—including treacherous and icy waters, biting winds, and deadly oxen—to prove to himself and to the great Spirit of the Mountain that he is a bear. At last, Little Bear struggles to convince the wilderness—the sea and wind become characters—that he can live among the animals. Here the film looks its best: the sea comes to life in brilliant blues, and the wind rustles up a detailed blizzard, both working hard to change Little Bear’s mind and send him back where they believe he belongs—among the humans.
Taylor, who voices Mother Bear in the film’s English version, says, “With this animation, it’s so simple and really beautiful that the emotion of it comes out even more so,” she says on the DVD’s only exploratory feature, titled “Interviews with U.S. Cast,” which runs for a little over five minutes. Baley (Father Eskimo) rather cryptically notes of the animation, “This is the same company that put out The Triplets of Belleville, so you’re know what you’re dealing with.” Actually, the two films differ quite a bit in style, which is why it would have been beneficial to hear Hastrup or the animators discuss their choices, such as placing their characters on watercolor backgrounds, especially considering how important the watercolor animation here is in juxtaposing stark whites with rich hues, shifting with changing seasons and characters’ sentiments.
Rich blues, yellows, and purples surround the bear family, with blacks and browns marking their times of sadness. Little Bear’s rescue, perhaps the film’s most difficult moment, appears in harsh red on white, illustrating the child’s sense of loss and rupture, as well as Mother Bear’s blood staining the ice. Nature is shifting back to where it should have been all along—Little Bear with his human parents—but the vibrant hues highlight the mistakes made by the hunter, by Mother Bear, and especially Father Bear, whose irresponsible choice ends up causing so much pain.
The Boy Who Wanted to Be a Bear speaks to human ignorance of the animal world, pondering the sensitivity of other creatures to their surroundings. Little Bear’s perseverance reveals his passion, which proves the most important aspect of his eventual transformation, a result of both his backgrounds. “Nature” dictates his home is with the humans, but he’s lived his life as a bear and knows no other way. He gets what he wants, but the film doesn’t leave the viewer with the sense that this is a good thing.