British Columbia, 1885, and a bear cub (Youk the Bear) is watching his mother industriously digging a bee hive out of a cliffside so she can get to the honeycombs inside. She is fairly successful as she bats away the bees with her paws, and the cub gets a chance to feast on the honey as well, but his mother then goes too far in her digging and makes part of the cliff unstable - it falls heavily on her, killing her and leaving her offspring at a loss for what to do next...
The Bear, or L'ours as it was known in its original French, was intended by its director Jean-Jacques Annaud to impart a moral lesson about not killing animals, and so with his screenwriter Gérard Brach he constructed a narrative that would showcase the creatures to their most flattering effect. This in spite of the way we see the animals kill each other with some gusto, or at least threaten to do so in selected cases, but that was part of the message: it's OK for the beasts to destroy each other for the purposes of food, but not OK for the humans to kill them for sport.
There were two hunters in this - played by Tchéky Karyo and Jack Wallace - and they're looking for bears. We see they have been productive in their endeavours as their mule carries bearskins, and now they have a new target in their sights, firing off a shot that wounds, but does not kill, a Kodiak played by Bart the Bear. He was a familiar sight in movies needing such creatures for about twenty years, appearing in efforts such as The Great Outdoors and Legends of the Fall, and perhaps his most celebrated role battling Anthony Hopkins in The Edge, but this was what the animal lovers most responded to.
Annaud might have been trying to present his tale as realistically as possible, but he was not immune to the pressures of rendering his stars as endearing, basically by offering them human characteristics and giving us cutesy scenes. When the cub joins up with the wounded adult to form a wary partnership, it's unlikely something like that would have occurred in the wild, as Bart would most probably have eaten Youk as a snack, but for the purposes of this story we had to find them both as noble and affectionate as possible. It was a tribute to the hard work the filmmakers had put in that with minimal dialogue their efforts here were as absorbing as they were.
Although Bart was a celebrity of the bear world, Youk was not actually one cub, as he was played by a selection of infants depending on the scene, but even though the character visibly matures, it was always consistent. While there were stretches to make you go "aww", as when the cub starts tripping on magic mushrooms (he also gets stop motion animated dreams) - although that might just as well make you go "huh?" - there were in addition parts more overtly harrowing, such as when blood is drawn. See the sequence where the hunters set their dogs on the bears, and the hounds are savaged in return, as there's no sparing of dog lovers' feelings as there are for bear lovers, though it is clear their deaths and injuries are the fault of the humans. You did get spectacular scenery, notable animal footage, but also a confused style that could not make up its mind about its reaction to the animal kingdom. The shadow of Disney loomed large. Music by Philippe Sarde.