TORONTO — BEARS have a special place in the animal world, as we humans see it. True, there's never been a great bear character like, say, Lassie the dog or Dumbo the elephant. But bears are always popular in circuses, and the way we think about them is unusual: We know they're big, strong, and even scary, yet they're also sort of cuddly. The teddy bear, after all, must be the most popular snuggling companion of all time. Add up the different qualities we associate with bears, and it's not surprising that Jean-Jacques Annaud's new movie, ``The Bear,'' has been one of the year's biggest hits in Europe - and has now arrived on American screens, beginning with a debut at the annual Festival of Festivals here. It's a likable movie, and at times an adorable one. I think it would be better, though, if it paid more attention to the world of nature - which is its subject, after all - and less attention to the world of moviemaking tricks.
The story is simple, so I won't give much of it away. The heroes are two Kodiak bears, a cub and an adult, living in the British Columbia wilds. These aren't cartoon creatures but real, live, majestic animals. And at the moment, both of them are unusually vulnerable: The cub is an orphan, and the grownup has been wounded by hunters. They meet up with each other, and it looks as if they might have a nice future together - except that hunters are still after the big one; so they must flee for their lives across the wilderness. They have various adventures along the way, and the big bear even has a quick love affair, with a little on-screen sex.
The stars of ``The Bear'' are compulsively watchable. Just the way they move their bodies is endlessly fascinating. Ditto for the magnificent Canadian scenery.
The trouble with ``The Bear'' is that it's such a self-conscious piece of filmmaking. The joy of watching a wilderness movie is feeling a sense of the wilderness itself; that's why nature movies are usually best when the filmmakers just film it, calling little attention to themselves. But director Annaud, whose films include ``Quest for Fire'' and ``The Name of the Rose,'' is always manipulating things, usually through editing, to make the plot more powerful - even though this often means less natural.
This raises a fascinating issue that film theorists have written about for decades: the tension between film's ability to capture the real world (or a reasonable facsimile) and the filmmaker's ability to manipulate filmed material so it suits a particular (usually narrative) purpose.
In the early days of cinema, filmmakers such as D.W. Griffith and Sergei Eisenstein were overwhelmed by the power of montage - the editing of shots into carefully arranged sequences - to bestow new meanings on the material they photographed. For decades, beginning in the 1920s, most filmmakers considered montage to be the essence of cinema. This didn't change until the 1940s, when such directors as Orson Welles and William Wyler started using new methods (camera movements, deep focus, and ``takes'' lasting a long time) to crowd more information into each individual shot, thus avoiding the need for constant shot-to-shot cutting. This gave a new kind of realism to cinema, since it allowed images to flow in a lifelike way.
French critic Andr'e Bazin wrote eloquently on the advantages of this approach. A magic trick may be very impressive if it's filmed in one uninterrupted shot, he noted, but if there's a single cut - however insignificant - the audience will assume things were manipulated while the camera was turned off, and lose faith in the magician's skill. Bazin found a special need for avoiding montage in nature films. He praised a movie in which the camera grinds patiently away while a hunter waits for his prey to come in view, forcing the audience to share his suspense; if editing were used, ``real time'' would be condensed into ``movie time'' and the realistic effect would be lost.
Montage certainly has important uses, today as always; and Mr. Annaud is clearly a competent filmmaker. But he has failed to learn Bazin's lessons. To arrive at the story he's after - a highly anthropomorphic story, which is also part of the problem - he continually chops his footage into bits and pieces that diminish the sense of conviction we might have felt regarding the bears, their training, and even the Canadian background of their story.
Most moviegoers will love ``The Bear'' anyway, since it's like a traditional Disney kind of film made with grown-up audiences in mind. I think it would be more effective, though, if it showed us the profound charm of the real world captured spontaneously on film.