Saturday, January 07, 2006

The Bear's Tale (1940)

The Bear's Tale (Warner Bros., 1940)
Dir.: Tex Avery
Cel Bloc Rating: 6/9

"What's Little Red got that I haven't got?," sniffs a miffed Goldilocks to an impatient Wolf dressed up in Grandma's clothing. He is obviously awaiting the entrance of his traditionally intended meal, who it eventually turns out is a slightly brassy Little Red Riding Hood, when this little blonde brat (from any story entirely) wanders into Grandma's House, herself having taken the wrong direction in the forest. The Wolf shoos the little miss off, who says the line above and struts off in a mockingly adult female vamp, simultaneously turning up her nose at the Wolf, carrying this pose back into the forest towards the Three Bears' house where she is bound to end up eventually. After all, this is The Bear's Tale. What the hell is the Wolf doing here?

This is what happens when you involve Tex Avery, and also what happens when a fairy tale is retold by the Warner Bros. Animation Department. Whatever was written down by the Grimms and Aesop and C. Perrault and H.C. Andersen is bound to get severely twisted in the hands of the Boys of Termite Terrace. And without fail, it does, this film being no exception. Avery coats the film in traditional storytelling elegance: the backgrounds and sets are gorgeously rendered, the Bears themselves could have stepped out of any storybook, and there are no real comic exaggerations in the film. At least, not the kind that you are used to in Avery films, except when you get to the story. The film always remains deceptively pleasant, and ambles along at an un-Avery like pace (the film often seems as if it were one of Chuck Jones' more laconic early 40's pieces), but there is just enough of a tweak to the storyline that you realize that Mr. Fred Avery is at the lunatic controls.

There is an interesting effect that is used in the film: there is a constantly repeated shot of "the beautiful green forest" (which could easily have dropped out of the film canister of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs) which is used for every single transition scene, with narration repeated ("Meanwhile...", etc.), which it seems is used to jolt the story along and make it seem more rushed than the movie actually happens to be. It is almost a see-saw effect, at least on this viewer, for I get the sensation that the movie is careening forward to some explosive conclusion at the same time that the characters seem to be in no real hurry whatsoever to resolve the story, taking time out for little bits of "actorly" business.

Example: Goldilocks finally arrives at the Bear's House, but just before she goes upstairs, where the Wolf, realizing his mistake at letting an easy piece like Goldie go previously, is waiting in one of the Bears' beds, Goldie receives a telephone call from Little Red Riding Hood. The brassy Red says "Listen, Honey..." and precedes to warn Goldie about the Wolf via split screen (the traditional boundary of which the characters, of course, will violate). Just as you think that Goldie is about to get out of the house, the moppet casually returns to the telephone and checks the change dish to look for any errant nickels or dimes (in a leisurely fashion). She then realizes that she is on camera, and shamefacedly returns to the story.

The Bears are a far cry from Jones' later supremely dysfunctional family unit, who always seemed to cause the most harm to themselves rather than Bugs Bunny or any other situation that confronted them. These Three Bears are decidedly more laid-back and, as it turns out, too frightened of the world about them to ever be any eventual harm to, or even give fright to, poor lost little thieving Goldilocks. The Papa Bear is the most fully developed of the trio, with the booming great laugh of the director himself coming out of the Bear's mouth. The bears take their time with the usual porridge and going-out-to-let-it-cool business, with a couple of cute gags thrown in for good measure revolving around the Little Bear's lack of size. (Of course, the punchline of the film involves both the film's title, and the phrase "...the Little Bear behind...")

I tend to forget about this small, quiet charmer amongst the more crazed, rapid-fire gaggery of much of Avery's output. Whenever I see it, I am astounded by how much I enjoy its for this one simple element: it is that rare cartoon that relies on the cuteness of its characters without coming off as cloying, which is the general result of such endeavors in the hands of mere mortal cartoon directors.

[Editor's note: The text and photos for this article were updated on 10/29/2015.]

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